B.C. wildfire season off to slower start — except in the northeast

In northeastern B.C., the Nogah Creek and Patry Creek wildfires are still burning out of control

For most of the province, this year's wildfire season is off to a slower start than last year — except in northeastern B.C.

Emilie Peacock, a fire information officer with the B.C. Wildfire Service, said most of the province is seeing a "quiet" start to the fire season, with the exception of the Prince George Fire Centre region.

While fewer wildfires have started this year compared to last year, she said it's unclear what the summer will bring.

"Overall, this year, we have had a less busy spring. We're very thankful for that," she said. "What's to come this summer depends on how much rain we see for the rest of the month."

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So far this year, 209 wildfires have started, and 179 have been extinguished, according to the B.C. Wildfire Service. That's down from the same time last year when the number of wildfire starts was 393.

The province's data shows nearly 3,220 square kilometres have burned since April 1. That's almost 80 per cent of the average area burned in an entire season for the years 2012 through 2022 — about 4,070 square kilometres — according to the B.C. government.

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CBC - BC Square kilometres burned each year

Peacock said it's difficult to compare the number and size of fires each season because it can vary "quite significantly" from year to year. She said the size of a wildfire is just one of several ways to assess the impact of a wildfire season. The number of evacuations is another.

"We could have a really busy fire year, and then the next year could be quieter," she said. She said the size and number of wildfires depend on short-term weather conditions, including heat, rainfall and wildfire-sparking lightning.

According to Natural Resources Canada, researchers expect climate change will result in more frequent wildfires and hot and dry weather, contributing to fire intensity.

CBC - Fort Nelson BC fires - Benoit Ferradini

In May, wildfires burned near Fort Nelson, B.C., causing residents to evacuate. (Benoit Ferradini/CBC/Radio-Canada)

The Prince George Fire Centre, which roughly encompasses the province's northeastern quarter, has seen most of the province's wildfires this year.

Last month, the Parker Lake wildfire caused the Fort Nelson First Nation and Fort Nelson residents to evacuate their homes. A separate wildfire also forced the Doig River First Nation to evacuate.

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Also, in northeastern B.C., the Nogah Creek and Patry Creek wildfires are still burning out of control. As of Monday, they are measured at 987 square kilometres and 673 square kilometres, respectively.

Low snowpack continues

Dave Campbell, head of the B.C. River Forecast Centre, said snowpack levels are about 57 per cent of what's normal for this time of year. It's up from 29 per cent in June 2023, he said, but still low.

Campbell said last year, low snowpack meant less water was flowing into streams and rivers late in the season, contributing to drought.

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This year, there was less snow than usual over the winter and hot temperatures early in May caused lots of melt. While cooler temperatures last month let a little more snow accumulate, Campbell said it wasn't enough to bring levels back to normal.

"It's not great. It does follow the broader pattern of the low snowpack," he said. "[Snow pack] is a factor that's pushing the hazard up for drought this year."

'We're expecting a long fire season'

After rain last month helped firefighters get the Parker Lake Wildfire under control, nearby residents were able to return to their homes. On Sunday, the B.C. Wildfire Service said the fire was now listed as under control.

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Northern Rockies Regional Municipality Mayor Rob Fraser said businesses in Fort Nelson are back up and running, and the community is "feeling much better."

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Still, Fraser said while recent rain has helped keep wildfires under control, the region is still facing the most severe drought conditions.

"We're expecting a long fire season this year," he said. "I don't think anybody has unpacked their RVs, I don't think anybody has unpacked their three-day travel bag. I think everybody is just cautiously anticipating what might come this summer."

This article, written by Isaac Phan Nay, was originally published for CBC News.