What's ahead for B.C.'s flood, wildfire season? Officials give update

With spring weather expected to warm up, bringing increased flood and wildfire risk to B.C., officials are giving locals an idea of what to expect in the months ahead.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth was joined Tuesday by representatives from BC Wildfire Service, the River Forecast Centre, and Environment and Climate Change Canada to present the province's flood and wildfire outlook. All the officials said it's too early to predict how weather will impact conditions, but there are some factors residents should be aware of.

"In many ways, British Columbia is on the front lines of climate change in Canada and it's clear we all need to do more to keep our communities safe," Farnworth said.

"I know that if we all work together we can achieve so much. We can help to ensure our collective safety."

FLOOD RISK

Bobby Sekhon, warning preparedness meteorologist with ECCC, said during Tuesday's update that B.C.'s early spring weather has been "up and down," with "quite cold" temperatures in April.

The weeks ahead could see more precipitation.

"We're now heading into a relatively wet time of the year as we approach June, which normally is the wettest month of the year for the Interior of B.C.," he explained.

"It's going to be a fine balance between getting enough precipitation in June that we avoid those dry conditions that could lead to possible forest-fire susceptibility in the summer, but not getting too much precipitation in the month of May when all that water can get into the river systems and give flooding concerns."

Sekhon also said a rapid rise in temperatures could lead to dangerously quick melt of higher-elevation snowpack.

"We'll definitely be keeping an eye out for any prolonged periods of heat, as well as heavy precipitation following that, because that's going to be the most concerning scenario for possible flooding in B.C.," he said.

David Campbell, with the River Forecast Centre, said it's that combination of melting snowpack and extreme precipitation that exacerbates flood risk. In fact, Campbell said, weather is what makes up half to two-thirds of flood risk in the province.

"It's really going to be the weather that determines how that snow melts," he said.

Both Campbell and Sekhon said there's a lot of uncertainty ahead, because extreme weather events can't be forecast more than a couple days in advance. However, officials are monitoring conditions daily.

"We really do need to see a combination of both (melting) snowpack and extreme weather to drive extreme flooding," Campbell said.

WILDFIRE SEASON

B.C.'s wildfire season has already begun, with 91 fires recorded since the start of April. Brent Martin, with BCWS, said that's fairly typical for early spring. Conditions could worsen quickly, however, especially in some parts of the province that saw less precipitation in the winter.

"One of the early things that we do start to watch for as wildfire seasons start to unfold is how quickly we move to snow-free conditions," Martin said.

Once areas are snow-free, officials can better understand how quickly natural fuel sources will dry out and react throughout the season, he explained.

Some parts of the province are already likely to be at greater risk though, due to the below-normal levels of precipitation they got in the winter. Those areas include parts of the southern Cariboo through Kamloops and the Okanagan, and parts of the southeast corner of B.C., Martin said.

Martin explained conditions in those regions are actually carrying over from last year, because they didn't receive enough precipitation to "reset" natural fuels and make them less susceptible to fires.

"As we go into this season, that is something that we're going to be watching very closely," he said.

Martin echoed Campbell and Sekhon's point that officials can't predict the impacts of short-term weather patterns, like lightning storms. But the amount of rain areas receive in the coming weeks will make a difference, he said.

EMERGENCY ALERT EXPANDED

In anticipation of the flood and fire seasons, officials announced Tuesday B.C. will expand the use of its wireless alerts to include imminent threats those emergencies. 

The notifications come through Alert Ready, a national system used to improve public safety in the event of emergencies. Currently, they're used in B.C. for tsunami warnings and Amber Alerts.

The alerting system is ready to be used for imminent flood risk and will be expanded by early June to include wildfire threats.

A test alert will be sent out on Wednesday at 1:55 p.m. During that test, an alert will be broadcast on radio and TV stations. It will also be sent out on compatible cellphones.