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The scale of the Fort McMurray blaze could portend a nasty fire season in Prairies.

JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Blocks of brown and red dominate the middle of the fire risk map prepared by Natural Resources Canada. The colours stand for "very high" and "extreme" danger, and spread across much of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The dire picture seems to confirm what many fear as the Fort McMurray wildfire continues to burn: that a blaze of this size so early in the year augurs badly for the fire season in western Canada.

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But with the region on high alert, signs of what the summer holds remain murky. What's daunting about forest fires, say meteorologists and fire watchers, is their sheer unpredictability.

This winter's hot, dry weather in the region could heighten fire risk for months to come, said Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips. The season amounted to the third warmest and second driest Prairie winter in 70 years, or as long as records have been kept, Mr. Phillips said.

The lack of precipitation has turned the local "forest litter" – fallen needles and leaves, mostly – into a "tinder box."

"That combination of too hot, too dry, for too long has already made that area a spark away from burning up," he said.

To counteract those conditions, western Canada will need heavy rain throughout the summer, Mr. Phillips believes.

"Normal won't cut it," he said. "We need in fact a very wet rest of the summer, just to balance things out."

June tends to be the wettest month in the Prairies, Mr. Phillips said, so "these rescue rains, these saviour rains, may still come."

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But the winter weather bodes badly, he added. "It's not something that looks pretty. It looks grim," he said. "This is not just a one-off."

There's a precedent for bad fire seasons coming on the heels of warm, dry winters, said Mike Flannigan, professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta. The last time Alberta had a serious El Nino winter was in 1997. The following summer had particularly bad forest fires, he said. The 2002 fire season, also notably severe, followed a prolonged drought in southern Alberta.

But weather in Alberta can be fickle, said Ralph Wright, manager of the agro-meteorology section of the Alberta ministry of forestry and agriculture.

"It's replete with these swings from dry to wet and wet to dry," he said. A saving spate of downpours isn't out of the question as the province enters its rainy season, but when or if it arrives is impossible to predict.

"It's anybody's guess now beyond seven days," he said.

While Alberta has been the locus of fire concerns, much of western Canada faces the same risks and uncertainties. An interactive map generated by Natural Resources Canada shows fire danger ranging from High to Extreme across much of northern B.C. and Alberta, with a concentration of the highest risk category in southern Saskatchewan.

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Unseasonably hot and dry weather has been a problem in B.C. as well as the Prairies, said Ryan Turcot, a fire-information officer with the province's wildfire service.

"In B.C. for the 2016 fire season, it's certainly fair to say we've experienced earlier than normal wildfire activity," he said. "And that wildfire activity is related to higher than normal temperatures and lower than normal precipitation."

The province is expecting warmer and drier conditions than usual into early summer but they don't know for sure what the season holds yet. A better indication, said Mr. Turcot, is late spring rains.

"It really is too early to say what's in store for the rest of the season," he said. "Our crews and resources are certainly prepared for the worst and hoping for the best."

After its own dry winter – though not as dry as Alberta's – Saskatchewan is looking ahead to the summer with apprehension as well. An online poll conducted by the Prince Albert Daily Herald found that 88 per cent of respondents in the northern city were worried about the fire season.

During a news conference on Thursday, officials said that the province's firefighting staff and aircraft were on "high alert" and that the fire conditions were "extreme."

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Steve Roberts, executive director for wildfire management with the provincial ministry of environment, said that as of Friday there were seven active forest fires in Saskatchewan, all of them contained.

Mr. Roberts said that despite the flinty start to the season, spring fire conditions don't necessarily carry over into summer.

A combination of factors make early season blazes unusually volatile, he said, including trees and grass that hadn't gone green yet and a lack of atmospheric moisture, because still-frozen lakes and rivers aren't evaporating, he explained.

Spring fires also tend to be fuelled by dry grass and shrubs, and sparked by human activity rather than lightning, making them flare up closer to communities.

"It could be a couple sparks from the muffler of your quad or your ATV," he said.

While these fires start quicker and move faster than ordinary forest fires, they're also typically easier to put out. Mr. Roberts compared early- and late-season blazes to bonfires made with newspaper as opposed to ones fuelled by logs.

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Fire risk engendered by a dry winter can be offset fairly quickly, he said, and doesn't necessarily carry over into summer.

"After we get through this spring season, our fire risk is predicated on the amount of rain we get through the summer," he said. "You can bring down fire hazard with a small amount of rain."

With reports from Ian Bailey

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