Navigating the ‘wildfire season’

A look to the summer ahead and what experts study when it comes to wildfire predictions

BC Wildfire Service

As May long weekend fades into the rearview mirror, Valley residents race towards summer, straining to see if we can spot wildfires ahead.

Watching conditions from high in the sky is Steve Levitt, B.C. wildfire officer for the Invermere fire zone. He surveys the available data to see if we will face yet another summer of wildfires, or if we will have the all-clear summer we crave.

There are blind turns around every corner when it comes to wildfire predictions. Available forest fuel, alpine snowpack, weather forecasts, and – most unpredictable of all: the human variable – all create a road map with lots of potential hazards. Added together, Mr. Levitt gently suggests that indications point to a potential for greater chance of wildfires in 2019.

There are several tools fire forecasters use to estimate the potential for wildfires in a given season, called indices. One indices is the Build Up Index (BUI), which estimates how much forest fuel is available to burn.

“That’s slightly above average right now,” said Mr. Levitt, though “not record setting

… We look at the indices and say, in this case, that yes it is slightly above average.”

The B.C. Wildfire Service (BCWS) released a season outlook May 8th to give insight into what the provincial department studies to determine wildfire risk.

“Precipitation, lightning storms and wind events are difficult to predict more than a few days out and are by far the most influential weather events on our fire season,” the bulletin states. It also says the severity of a fire season is “highly dependent” on local weather patterns. The BCWS predicts fire season with meteorologist assessments as well as fire behaviour specialists who look at broad fire environment factors and observed weather data, including conditions that affect soil moisture, fine fuel dryness and vegetation growth. Summed up, BCWS estimates a normal to above-average fire season this year.

The B.C. River Forecast Centre, which analyzes snow conditions and water supply, states that across the province, there is an average of 79 per cent of normal for the snow basin. The East Kootenay has a below-normal snow pack this year, at 70 per cent.

Factors like snow pack and lightning storms cannot be controlled. Human-caused wildfires, on the other hand, continue to spread in B.C. Already in 2019, there have been four small wildfires in the Columbia Valley, all suspected to be person-caused, according to the B.C. Wildfire Service.

“There are preventable fires. You, as an individual, can modify your behaviour and change the outcome,” said Mr. Levitt.

In late August 2018, the BC Wildfire Service reported that on average over the past 10 years, 40 per cent of wildfires were caused by humans. Fire information officer Ryan Turcott told national media that things like campfires, cigarettes and car crashes likely started more than 400 wildfires in B.C. in 2018 alone.

Every year there are days that have a higher potential for a fire to break out, Mr. Levitt says, which means people need to prepare their homes and communities. Embers can travel through the air, so even if you are not next to a forest, your home has the potential to burn from a wildfire.

“You have to look inside your community, and prepare your home, your business – make sure they’re not susceptible to ignition from embers,” Mr. Levitt cautioned. “There’s always a chance of a significant fire every year happening here.”

Looking at simple things like removing bark mulch or clearing cedar or juniper bushes can lessen the risk of embers sparking a fire.

“It doesn’t mean living in this denuded, concrete landscape. You just have to think about the vegetation and materials you put in those zones,” he said.

FireSmart BC has a new website that provides a centralized resource dedicated solely to wildfire prevention through FireSmart initiatives.

“British Columbians can play a critical role in mitigating wildfire risks around their homes and properties by undertaking FireSmart initiatives. Homeowners who diligently implement the recommended FireSmart guidelines greatly increase the probability that their homes will survive a wildfire event,” Mr. Levitt said.

For more information, visit firesmartbc.ca.

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