British Columbia's wildfire season is off to its busiest start in the past 10 years, but officials say that does not necessarily mean the province is in for a rough summer.
As of Tuesday, the province had seen 132 fire starts this season, more than twice the average. The number of hectares burned – estimated at more than 10,000 – is also at a 10-year high for this point in the season.
Fifty of the fires have been in the Prince George Fire Centre, which has also accounted for more than 9,000 hectares burned. Close to 500 B.C. homes were under evacuation alerts or orders as of Tuesday afternoon.
B.C. Forests Minister Steve Thomson said while there has been significant fire activity already this season, it does not foreshadow what might come.
"This is an early start, it doesn't necessarily indicate what the long-term outlook for the fire season will be," Mr. Thomson said during a conference call.
Kevin Skrepnek, B.C.'s chief fire information officer, echoed that sentiment.
"Once May and June comes around, that's usually when we see quite a bit of precipitation in lots of areas of the province," he said in an interview. "Certainly, right now, we do want people to be cautious – it is dry out there. But as to whether this is a sign of a big fire season to come, we just don't know yet."
Last summer, unusually warm and dry conditions across Western Canada fuelled a drought that was blamed for hundreds of wildfires, forced strict water restrictions and threatened the agriculture industry.
In Metro Vancouver, summer water restrictions will start two weeks earlier this year and end two weeks later, marking the first time the region has extended the general water restriction period in the past decade.
Premier Christy Clark expressed concern last year that climate change had altered the terrain and left B.C. more vulnerable to wildfires.
Mr. Skrepnek said the length of the fire season can vary. He said last season was extremely busy in July and August, but the fires were mostly gone by Labour Day. In other seasons, he said, the summer can be slow, but the fires will continue into mid-October.
"It really is fickle," he said.
Mr. Thomson said there were 49 new fires in B.C. on Monday, 37 of which were in the Prince George Fire Centre. He said fire activity was driven by strong winds, but cooler temperatures and some rain are expected later in the week.
Lisa Coldwells, a meteorologist with Environment Canada, said B.C. experienced a warmer winter than usual and said higher-than-normal temperatures were expected over the next three months; the difference would be more pronounced in the early spring, she said, while the change in temperature could be less dramatic in June.
Ms. Coldwells said it was difficult to forecast if the summer would be wetter or drier than usual. When asked if the province could see the kind of droughts it experienced last summer, she said there were many factors to consider, such as river flows.
She also said different regions in B.C. have their own microclimates.
"Vancouver – you know how green it is and how wet it is. All you have to do is travel to the Coast Mountains and get into the Okanagan Valley and it's completely different," she said in an interview.
Last season, B.C. had more than 1,800 wildfires that burned more than 280,000 hectares. The cost to fight them was approximately $290-million. The cost in 2014 was about $298-million, up sharply from 2013 ($122-million), 2012 ($134-million) and 2011 ($54-million).