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Precipitation still at a deficit as B.C. nears 2024 wildfire season

90 ‘holdover’ wildfires from the 2023 season and still burning in the province

Despite the rain and snow in the last three months, the province is still in a deficit when it comes to precipitation levels.

And an Environment Canada meteorologist says B.C. may be moving back into drier weather in the next few weeks.

Derek Lee told Black Press Media Thursday (Feb. 29) that the seasonal outlook for B.C. may be trending away from El Niño conditions, which typically mean warmer winter temperatures in the province.

“I know we’ve had some cold spells here and there in the Lower Mainland but if we look back at it, the winter temperatures are actually much warmer than normal.”

But he said the weather conditions could be in the middle, between El Niño and it’s colder counterpart, La Niña.

Lee said from December through to February, B.C. was trending back to normal and wetter conditions. But because 2023 was such a deficit in terms of precipitation, “the last three months isn’t really enough to put that water back into the ground.”

He said it was in spring last year that B.C. first saw a major uptick in wildfires, as May had unprecedentedly warm temperatures that continued through all of summer.

B.C. is continuing to see the impacts of those dry conditions.

Half of the province’s 32 water basins at adverse drought level conditions or higher. Northeast B.C. is seeing the worst drought levels where adverse impacts are almost certain.

“That has been the driest probably in all the province last year … The drought conditions up there are one of the worst places in B.C.”

With the continuing dry conditions come what BC Wildfire Service calls “holdover” wildfires. They’re fires that burn over winter, often underground, but can resurface during warm and dry temperatures.

READ MORE: Some ‘holdover’ 2023 B.C. wildfires still smouldering, showing smoke

There are currently 90 active holdover fires and the majority are in the Prince George Fire Centre, which is in the northeast corner of the province and the largest of B.C.’s fire centres. BC Wildfire Service said in an emailed statement that the number of holdover wildfires is unsurprising given the widespread fire activity in 2023 and the ongoing drought conditions.

BC Wildfire Service said it couldn’t predict what the 2024 wildfire season could look like though.

Now a year-round operation, BC Wildfire Service studie forecasts, analyzes trends and accounts for conditions that affect soil, moisture, fine fuel dryness, vegetation growth and overall fuel availability. Snow pack levels are also another means of forecasting.

However, as of Feb. 1, B.C. was 39 per cent below normal snowpack levels, with the south coast and Vancouver Island experiencing the worst levels. The northeastern portion of the province is anywhere between 50 and 69 per cent of normal levels.

By the end of 2023, 2,245 wildfires burned nearly three million hectares throughout the province. It was a the most hectares burned in a wildfire in B.C.’s history.

READ MORE: Canada bracing for the possibility of an even worse wildfire season

READ MORE: B.C. wildfires in 2023 scorch 3 million hectares

In the 2024 budget, B.C. promised $405 million for emergency management throughout the province, which included $175 million for wildfire response, recovery and infrastructure.

That funding includes:

• $56 million for aviation preparedness and response with increased contract funding for helicopter and air tanker services

• $60 million for the Forest Enhancement Society of BC, which does both community- and industry-focused wildfire risk reduction and fuel management

• $38 million to support stable, year-round resourcing, including fire crew leaders and front-line staff that provide structure protection, prevention and risk reduction, and wildfire land-based recovery

• $21 million for a new Prince George equipment depot

READ MORE: B.C. Budget 2024: $405M for climate emergency mitigation and management