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Abnormally dry conditions in parts of B.C. and the Prairies have contributed to a spike in wildfires and rising grain prices. Now, some experts are saying the trend could be long term.

Deepening drought: Not yet California, but Canada sees signs

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Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter

Thursday, June 25, 2015, 4:53 PM - Extremely dry conditions in parts of British Columbia and across the Prairies have contributed to a spike in wildfires, new steps towards water rationing and rising grain prices. Now, some experts are saying the trend could be long term.

While it's premature to say Canada is headed for a California-style drought – a region that has been dealing with below-average rainfall for four years – the signs are there and Canadian officials have begun to adopt some of the drought-management tactics employed by their U.S. counterparts.

On June 1, 2015, water restrictions were put in place throughout B.C.'s Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley regions, a move not unlike the state-wide water restrictions currently in place in California, where officials have been tasked with reducing water usage by up to 25 per cent.

The B.C. restrictions will remain in place until the end of September. Residents who water lawns outside of allotted hours can be fined up to $250 or subject to the bylaws of their individual municipality.

The same type of bans have proven controversial south of the border in California, with some of the state's wealthier residents refusing to take part in the initiative.


RELATED: Baby owl named Norman rescued from Little Bobtail Lake fire


2015: AN ACTIVE WILDFIRE SEASON

Parts of the Prairies and B.C. have gone weeks without substantial rainfall, causing a dramatic increase in wildfire activity. As of June 25, Alberta had seen 1,011 wildfires in 2015, compared to the five-year average of 710 wildfires per year.

In fact, B.C. has already burned through most of its wildfire budget, with 62,000 hectares of land scorched by over 500 wildfires before the start of the summer season.

"Throughout May and June, Vancouver, B.C. saw an astonishingly low amount of rain," says Weather Network meteorologist Erin Wenckstern.

"The area reported under 17 mm, when it should be more along the lines of 90 millimeters. And it doesn't stop there: Tofino, B.C. hasn’t even scraped past 30 mm for May and June – with the average total closer to 300 millimeters."



FARMERS FEARING DROUGHT CONDITIONS

Weeks without rain in southern Alberta has contributed to rising grain prices as farmers fear drought conditions, the CBC reports.

"Prices are going up based on speculation that it is going to dry off and there's going to be less product in the end," Derek Jacobson of Alberta's Arrowood Farm told the CBC.


RELATED: Wildfire-fighting plane crashes in Alberta


Trevor Hadwin, an agroclimate specialist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, says the region is in a 'critical period' for farmers. Rain is needed for the crops that have already emerged, and then more rain is needed to continue production.

"The whole Prairie region has been dry over the last two months," Hadwin told The Weather Network.

"Lack of snowfall this past winter and an early spring and warm conditions very early took away all the moisture that the snow would normally provide."

WARM WEEKEND AHEAD

A building ridge of high pressure is expected to extend western Canada's hot and dry conditions into the weekend, with the B.C. Interior expected to reach near 40 degrees Celsius. On Thursday, Environment Canada (EC) issued a special weather statement for southern B.C., warning of heat wave potential.

"Several daily temperature records are likely to fall with the possibility of monthly records falling come the end of June," EC revealed in a statement.

Temperatures in the mid-30s are expected on the western Prairies as well.

Although the public will often use the word "heat wave" to refer to any perceived period of hot temperatures, it's actually a technical term.

Specifically, a heat wave officially occurs when there are three or more consecutive days when the maximum temperature is 32°C or more.

But even when the temperature reaches potentially dangerous levels (Related: Five horrible things extreme heat does do humans), Environment Canada's system of heat warnings doesn't cover most of B.C.

While every other province and territory in Canada has a province-wide warning threshold, usually based on temperature and/or how long that temperature will last, EC only issues explicit heat warnings in B.C. for two cities: Vancouver (When temperatures are expected to reach 29°C or more on consecutive days) and Abbotsford (where the threshold is 34oC). The weather agency does occasionally issue special weather statements for heat when conditions warrant.



"The atmospheric setup for the first full weekend of summer looks like it will be a familiar one out west," Wenckstern says.

"A ridge in the west, keeping dry and hot air persistent for majority of the months to come."

THE CONNECTION TO EL NIÑO

Earlier this year, experts declared an El Niño.

An El Niño event  – the warming of the surface waters in the central Pacific Ocean  – can have a dramatic impact on weather systems.

"The last major drought we had corresponded with the last El Niño that impacted the Prairie region in 1997," Hadwin says, adding the same thing happened in 2003, 2007 and 2010, all of which were El Niño years.

"That's the big concern right now," he adds.

"Are we going into a dry period after experiencing a wet period over the last five years or so."

Sources: Globe and Mail | CBC

Additional reporting from The Weather Network

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