A combination of dried-out forests, potentially strong winds and lightning could make for a “very challenging” fire season in 2023, which has already turned to be unprecedented in many ways.
During a news conference.Thursday (June 8), provincial officials danced around the question of whether the 2023 wildfire season could be the worst season ever, but individual details of the briefing add up to a troubling, even gloomy, outlook.
Neal McLoughlin, superintendent of predictive services for BC Wildfire Service, said more than 450,000 hectares were burning on June 6, far exceeding figures from recent years in the same moment of time.
“Quite alarming to see this amount of area burning this early in the season and it certainly doesn’t bode well for the remainder of the summer,” he said.
McLoughlin made these comments during a lengthy update from officials that also included emergency minister Bowinn Ma, forests minister Bruce Ralston as well as other officials from BC Wildfire Service and the transportation ministry.
Ma opened the presentation with the acknowledgment that the fire season has already been well underway since mid-April with 82 fires currently burning in B.C. Since April 1, 2023, 382 wildfires have already burnt more than 520,000 hectares, she added.
“Already the number of hectares burnt this season exceeds the total number of hectares burnt in 16 of the last 20 wildfire seasons.”
Matt MacDonald, lead fire weather forecaster for the BC Wildfire Service, said an unusually dry October in 2022 coupled with record-setting temperatures in May set the stage for current conditions.
Temperatures ranging between three and 10 degrees above normal in places like Williams Lake not only sped up the snow melt and caused some flooding, but also “cured” provincial forests, freeing them of snow and setting the stage for lightning strikes, MacDonald said.
“We have melted that snow three to four weeks earlier than normal and as we approach the peak of lightning season, those (forests) are ready to be ignited.”
MacDonald added that June is shaping up to be warmer and drier than normal with humidity levels dropping into the single digits.
“When we get below 10-per cent relative humidity, which we are currently doing across a good chunk of the interior of the province, those are desert-like conditions,” he said. “It just accelerates the drying of those fuels and exacerbates the drought.”
While he acknowledged that models come with uncertainties when it comes to predicting future rainfall beyond two weeks, July and August are typically the driest months in B.C.
“We will have to see what the remainder of summer will bring as we get into the true core of the fire season, which is July and August … and the possibility of playing catch up is very limited,” he said.
That spells trouble, because lightning caused fires start to increase in June, peaking in July and August.
McLoughlin said those months could see between 250 and 300 lightning-caused fires per month and could begin as early as this month.
“One of our big concerns is rate at which we see these ligthning events occur, ” he said. “We could get scattered lightning at a slower pace or we could see a big weather system change that brings widespread lightning all at once.
“When we have got fuel available to burn, potentially associated with fast wind speeds, it is very challenging situation for fire agencies.”
Ma acknowledged these outlooks, but also tried to assure the public.
“British Columbians are concerned about wildfires here and we are certainly anticipating a challenging season ahead, but I do want to assure British Columbians that our government is doing everything necessary to make sure that the proper supports and resources are in place for the upcoming season,” she said, adding to start putting together a plan and a grab-and-go kit to be prepared.