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British Columbia Warmer summer expected in the West spells bad news for forest fires

The Chuckegg Creek wildfire burns out of control in the High Level Forest Area, near the town of High Level, Alberta.

HANDOUT/Reuters

With the wildfire season already under way in British Columbia and Alberta, Environment Canada is predicting a long, hot summer to come.

The wildfire threat has already forced evacuations in northwestern Alberta and central British Columbia, and the preliminary outlook for this summer points to worsening conditions, said David Phillips, Environment and Climate Change Canada’s senior climatologist.

“They need rain in Alberta, in British Columbia," he said. “It’s ominous with regard to the forest-fire season.”

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Although the summer outlook won’t be finalized until June 1, Mr. Phillips said Environment Canada’s forecast models point to a warmer-than-normal summer for much of the country, with “too much summer out west and not enough here in the central part of Canada.”

British Columbia, most of the Prairies, all of the North, Atlantic Canada and a large part of Quebec can expect June, July and August to be warmer than normal, on average.

For those parts of the country that have had a slow start to spring, the warmer temperatures will be welcomed. "Canadians want different things for this summer: In the East, we want it to dry up, for the sun come out. … Everything is wet, wet, wet. People say it’s too cold for black flies,” Mr. Phillips said.

For the most populated regions in Central Canada, Environment Canada sees too much uncertainty to forecast the summer trends, he said.

However, the Weather Network’s chief meteorologist Chris Scott predicts the wet weather that Ontario and Quebec have experienced in May will continue during the summer months and could lead to a heightened risk of flash flooding in some areas.

He said Southern Ontario and Quebec will get their hot days, but there won’t be as many as last summer.

“Last summer was a deadly one,” Mr. Scott said, referencing the heat-related deaths in Quebec. “We don’t expect this summer to be as hot.”

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He said there will be some heavy periods of rain in the southern part of the region that will exceed average precipitation levels for the area.

“But we don’t want to convey that this is a washout of a summer – it does not look that way,” he added.

Mr. Scott said the Atlantic provinces can expect “generally near-normal temperatures,” while Northern Canada can “expect an above-normal fire season as you head west of Yellowknife, especially, and then into the Yukon.”

In Western Canada, firefighters and farmers alike are hoping for rain.

“In Saskatchewan, this is the driest period they have ever gone through," Mr. Phillips of Environment Canada said. "They have never had three years in a row so dry: In the past 33 months, they have had less than half the precipitation that they would normally get.”

British Columbia has sent more than 250 firefighters to help battle fires in Alberta this month. On Monday, Alberta listed six out-of-control wildfires – two just in the previous 24 hours. Authorities issued an emergency alert for Trout Lake, about 500 kilometres north of Edmonton, due to a spreading wildfire. Farther north, firefighters battled the Chuckegg Creek blaze, a few kilometres southwest of High Level, which has caused about 5,000 people to flee.

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British Columbia has just endured its two worst years on record for wildfires: The summer of 2017 was unprecedented in scale and cost, with more than 1.2 million hectares burned, 65,000 people forced out and a firefighting bill of $650-million. In 2018, a state of emergency was declared, as wildfires blazed in almost all regions of the province. A new record was set – 1,354,284 hectares of land were consumed by fire.

Record-breaking temperatures and little rainfall led to an unusually aggressive start to the wildfire season this year in British Columbia. Kyla Fraser, a B.C. wildfire information officer, said much of northern B.C. is rated as high or extreme fire danger. The largest wildfire in the province on Monday was the Fontas River fire, a 650-hectare blaze roughly in B.C.'s northeast, about 150 kilometres southeast of Fort Nelson.

Mike Farnworth, the minister responsible for emergency services, said his government has boosted funding this year to ensure more resources are in place – for detection and prevention, as well as fire fighting.

The province is still battling fires from last year: “The forest service has been doing surveys in parts of British Columbia that had fires last year, where those fires went underground, to identify hot spots so we can get them dealt with quickly,” he said.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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