B.C. flood and fire seasons: Lingering drought, cooling trend, seasonal weather to play key roles

Click to play video: 'B.C. officials tracking risk of flood and wildfire'
B.C. officials tracking risk of flood and wildfire
WATCH: The province is preparing for flood and wildfire season. It is too early to say if B.C. will experience any extreme weather events this year, but officials are tracking the trends. Richard Zussman has more – Apr 13, 2023

British Columbia appears to be heading into a slightly cooler than normal spring, but how flood and fire seasons play out will likely depend on seasonal weather patterns, emergency officials said on Thursday.

Officials with B.C.’s Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, River Forecast Centre and Wildfire Service, plus Environment Canada, provided the update in a joint briefing which laid out a preview of this year’s flood and wildfire seasons.

Click to play video: 'What does a worst-case scenario look like in the flood and fire season in B.C.?'
What does a worst-case scenario look like in the flood and fire season in B.C.?
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The province’s spring outlook is being heavily influenced by the unusual drought the province experienced late last fall, with recent rainfall being a “drop in the bucket,” said Environment Canada warning preparedness meteorologist Armel Castellan.

Milder conditions are forecast to persist for much of the spring, with a cool trend lingering off B.C.’s coast that Castallan described as a “hangover” from a multi-season La Niña climate pattern.

“There is an El Niño watch currently, and it will develop probably by May, June, July, and eventually become likely a strong El Nino by the time we get to fall and winter,” he explained.

“But before we get to that period we are going to have our weather dictated by these cooler temperatures offshore.”

Click to play video: 'How will 2023 compare to previous flood and fire seasons?'
How will 2023 compare to previous flood and fire seasons?
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Castellan said beyond those trends, meteorologists will likely only be able to forecast weather events in the days leading up to them.

As the province shifts into spring, all eyes in the Interior will be on freshet season, with rain and snowmelt holding the potential to swell rivers and cause flooding.

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“We are seeing across the province a slightly below snowpack at 88 per cent normal, and that is reflective of the drier weather we experienced throughout the winter,” said Dave Campbell of the B.C. River Forecast Centre.

Flood outlook

Most areas of the province had a slightly below-average snowpack, while basins in the Chilcotin, Lower Thompson, Boundary, Okanagan and Middle Fraser-Quesnel regions were above average, he said.

Lingering cool weather could still boost the potential flood risk in some areas by delaying snowmelt or even leading to further snow accumulation he said.

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Click to play video: 'B.C. government preparing for spring freshet and wildfires'
B.C. government preparing for spring freshet and wildfires

Ultimately, Campbell said individual weather events — such as warm patches that speed up snowmelt or heavy rain that adds to runoff — will be the key, he said.

“Monitoring this extreme weather is going to be important, and also important within the areas where we have high snowpack, as well as areas that have normal or low snowpack. We still have that potential hazard there, particularly from extreme weather,” Campbell said.

While spring freshet bears the greatest short-term disaster risk, fire season is already knocking at the door in some parts of the province, lead BC Wildfire Service forecaster Matt MacDonald said, noting there have already been 11 wildfires since the start of April.

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Again, MacDonald pointed to last fall’s drought as the culprit for unusually dry conditions on the ground this spring.

“The tone for the 2023 fire season really started back in the fall of 2022,” he said.

Spring fire outlook

“If you can recall just how pleasant the weather was back in October, extremely warm anywhere from four to 10 degrees above normal each and every day of the month, and we saw very little in during what is usually a very wet month — and while that might have been nice patio weather, it continued to cure our fuels and deepen those drought conditions.”

MacDonald said drought conditions remain of particular concern in the Okanagan, South Thompson, Cache Creek, South Cariboo, and portions of the Rocky Mountain trench and Peace regions.

Despite that, MacDonald said officials were optimistic about the potential for a cool and damp spring to help recharge moisture on the ground, thanks to a healthy snowpack and cooler conditions in the Pacific.

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Click to play video: 'More federal funds coming to help with 2021 B.C. flood recovery efforts'
More federal funds coming to help with 2021 B.C. flood recovery efforts

But he said early indications suggest the coming spring is unlikely to drift into historically wet or dry patterns.

“Currently it’s looking ‘normal’ for the foreseeable future,” he said.

While early signs appear positive for the season, Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Minister Bowinn Ma urged the public to ensure they’re ready for the possibility of unforeseen disasters.

British Columbians can prepare by assembling an emergency kit and a “grab and go” bag to be ready for potential evacuations or emergencies.

They’re now also able to pre-register with emergency social services to streamline the process of getting help in the case of an evacuation order.

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“At this time of year, as the snowpack melts and water levels rise, we know that our floodplains, watersheds and communities can be at risk. The lessons we have learned from the catastrophic floods two years ago are helping us become more prepared for extreme flooding,” Ma said.

“We’ve seen that extreme heat events are becoming more common and frequent and projected to become more severe due to climate change. Extreme heat is now a part of our reality, and it is critical British Columbians understand what they can do to protect themselves and their loved ones when these events happen.”

Ma said the province has taken multiple steps to prepare for flooding, including making detailed flood hazard maps for areas without them, and developing a provincial flood strategy.

She said the province has also implemented a B.C. heat alert and response system, created an extreme heat preparedness guide, implemented text alerts for heat emergencies and earmarked new funding for First Nations and municipalities to open cooling centres.

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