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B.C. wildfires summer outlook: Persistent drought means 'large, challenging fires' more likely

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So far, British Columbia's 2024 wildfire season has been less severe than last year's, but persistent drought conditions – especially in the province's northeast corner – mean "an increased likelihood of large, challenging fires" this summer, officials warned Wednesday.

Ministers Bruce Ralston and Bowinn Ma were joined by officials from the B.C. Wildfire Service in Vancouver Wednesday for a news conference looking ahead at this summer's forecast.

According to their presentation, some of the holdover fires that smoldered through the winter have intensified in northeastern B.C. this year, and other holdover fires have the potential to do the same as summer begins.

While precipitation is difficult to predict, an amount of rain sufficient to mitigate the current drought is unlikely to fall.

While the outlook for the rest of the season continues to be concerning, there has been some good news this week.

The fire burning near Fort Nelson, which began scorching thousands of hectares in early May, was downgraded this week to under control. All evacuation alerts have also been lifted after 4,700 people were temporarily displaced.

Rain and mild temperatures are believed to have aided crews to reduce its growth as similar conditions sweep areas of the province.

Ma, the province's minister of emergency management and climate readiness, began her remarks at Wednesday's news conference by thanking those who were displaced by the Fort Nelson fires, and the volunteers and agencies who aided them.

"We are stronger when we work together, and working together is what will carry us through the next several months," Ma said.

ESS changes

To that end, Ma announced several changes to the province's Emergency Support Services program, as well as a revamped EmergencyInfoBC website designed for a better user experience on mobile devices.

During major evacuation events this summer, the province will activate an online ESS self-service option for evacuees, Ma said. Those in need of assistance will be able to access it online, without having to wait in line at an in-person reception centre.

Ma encouraged people who think they may need assistance if they are ordered to evacuate this summer to pre-register on the ESS website.

The province has also introduced an option for evacuees to receive a $200-per-night allowance to cover accommodations, which will be available by Interac e-transfer or in person at reception centres.

The idea, according to officials, is to allow people greater flexibility in finding a place to stay during an evacuation order, whether that means staying with friends or family, travelling to a hotel in another part of the province, staying at a campground, or some other arrangement.

"We are all hoping for the best, but I want to make clear we will be preparing to do whatever it takes to help keep people and communities safe this summer," Ma said.

She encouraged B.C. residents to make plans now for what they will do in the event of an emergency, and suggested using the province's online Emergency Ready planner as a guide. 

'Boots on the ground'

The ESS changes were partially the result of recommendations from the premier's expert task force, which was struck in the wake of last year's record-setting wildfire season.

Ralston, the minister of forests, shared some of the changes that have been made related to firefighting as a result of the task force's recommendations.

"We are prepared to tackle this wildfire season head-on," said Ralston. "We've applied the lessons learned from last season."

Some of the actions the province has taken include leasing more equipment, planes and helicopters, increasing prevention work, and enhancing wildland firefighter recruitment and training, the minister said.

He said the BCWS has received almost twice as many applications as it usually does for firefighter positions this year, and hundreds of wildfire service personnel are now working year-round, rather than seasonally.

Ralston also noted increased numbers of First Nations participating in "wildfire boot camps," and 106 FireSmart co-ordinators taking wildfire prevention action in communities across the province.

"It's these boots on the ground that will make the difference during this wildfire season," he said.

Letters to water licensees

Matt MacDonald, the lead fire weather forecaster for the BCWS, said there are three main factors that lead to prolonged fire seasons in the province: drought, low snowpack and warm, dry weather in May and June.

The first two are present to varying degrees across B.C. this year, but the weather over the last two months has been seasonal, without the kind of prolonged heat or dry spells that can quickly increase fuel for wildfires.

MacDonald explained that nearly one million hectares of land had already burned by this time in the wildfire season last year.

So far in 2024 – thanks, in part, to more seasonal spring temperatures and precipitation – roughly 300,000 hectares have burned.

The underlying drought conditions, especially in northeast B.C., mean more large fires are likely on the way, even if this year's fire season doesn't approach the level of destruction seen in 2023.

To manage the drought, Ma said, the province will once again be sending letters to people and businesses that hold water licences across the province, asking them to voluntarily conserve water.

The hope is that voluntary conservation efforts will be enough to avoid mandatory restrictions on water use by licensees, the minister said.

"If you receive one of these letters, please take action to reduce water use," she said. "Do more to save water now in order to help reduce or delay the need to suspend water use later in the season."

Warmer-than-average summer 

Environment Canada is predicting a warmer-than-average summer for most parts of the country, except the south coast of B.C. 

The weather agency said on Tuesday that its seasonal forecast for the coast will likely be colder with a 40 to 60 per cent chance of a warmer summer in the Lower Mainland, unlike the 90 to 100 per cent in other areas of the country.

As of Wednesday, BCWS is reporting 110 active wildfires with 33 declared out in the last week.

Two incident management teams, 65 aviation units and 639 firefighting personnel have been assigned to the current fires.

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