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Low rainfall may elevate drought, wildfire risks in B.C. this summer

October 2022 was one of the driest and warmest Octobers on record
Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Thursday said province has already learnt lessons from 2021 flooding. (Drive BC)

Officials say British Columbians in the southern half of the province may be in for a cool spring, but a lack of rainfall since last fall could cause an increased risk of droughts and wildfires come summer.

The findings come from an update on seasonal emergency preparedness in advance of spring run off and the wildfire season.

Armel Castellan, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said most of British Columbians – except the northeastern corner of the province – has been experiencing what he said was a “widespread precipitation deficit” despite recent rains, which he called a “drop in the bucket.”

But if cool offshore water will likely lead to a cool spring, signs point toward a May, June and July that would be warmer than usual, Castellan added. While the probability is not strong, the script could “flip” in May or June, he said in urging British Columbians to keep an eye on the daily weather forecast because of uncertainty.

“The devil is in the detail,” he added later. Meteorologists cannot say for sure whether British Columbians will experience another heat dome in 2023 as they did in 2021 or an early start to the wildfire season, he said.

October 2022 was one of the driest and warmest Octobers on record with daytime highs consistently 4-10 degrees above normal, as the province saw very limited precipitation during a typically wet month. Rainfall remained below seasonal levels for the rest of the year and has lasted into this spring, causing province’s snowpack being below seasonal norms.

Head of the River Forecast Centre David Campbell underscored these points.

“The snow pack reflects the weather that (Castellan) has discussed,” Campbell said. The general, province-wide snowpack level is below the seasonal norm at 88 per cent with the Fraser River watershed at 100 per cent and some regional differences. The snow pack level is high in the Chilcotin, Lower Thompson and Boundary, moderate in the western part of the Fraser River and the Okanagan.

RELATED: VIDEO: Flooding, mudslide hampering travel through southern Vancouver Island

But like Castellan, Campbell warned of uncertainty. It will be important to monitor for extreme weather, because it can quickly lead to flooding, even in areas with normal or below snowpack levels.

Looking at drought conditions, Campbell said the below-normal snowpack is going to be a factor.

Matt MacDonald, lead forecaster with BC Wildfire Service, said fire crews are already busy, having dealt with 11 fires this season, two of which were human-caused.

With very limited moisture, drought conditions were much higher than normal for the late fall of 2022, which have continued into the spring of 2023, he said.

But MacDonald also had a piece of good news. Based on the available evidence, he predicted a “normal” wildfire season for the spring.

But like Castellan and Campbell, MacDonald was careful to highlight what is known and unknown so far. The number and severity of wildfires for July and August cannot be predicted at this moment, because it will depend on rainfall in June, which cannot be accurately forecasted at this stage.

This theme of uncertainty ran throughout the update.

Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Bowinn Ma said climate change has already and will continue to cause extreme weather events that last longer and are more severe than previous ones in urging British Columbians to prepare ahead.

Worse, the period between these events has become shorter, she added. Communities, she said, may face a wildfire while still recovering from a flood.

Ma said the provincial government has already learnt valuable lessons from the extreme flooding in the fall of 2021 in developing new programs and policies. “But we also know that despite our efforts to mitigate disaster risk, disasters and emergencies will happen.”


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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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