Scientists forecast a risky summer for forest fires

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Accure weather

This summer is likely to bring an above-average risk of forest fires across most of Canada, including some extra risk to our own region, federal forestry scientists believe.

The greatest risk will be in Western Canada, across northern British Columbia and Alberta and into Yukon and the Northwest Territories.

Environment and Climate Change Canada runs two climate forecast models, and the Americans run more. Together these show broad patterns of temperature and precipitation, though the models never agree on every detail.

“Generally I wouldn’t be too alarmed by the areas where it (risk estimate) just says ‘above normal,’” said Richard Carr, a fire research analyst with Natural Resources Canada in Edmonton. (This covers large areas of Ontario and Quebec this year, including the capital region.) “Probably you won’t see too much dramatic activity.”

But large areas of Alberta and B.C. are starting the spring already dry, a condition that caused widespread wildfires last summer. Southern areas from B.C. right through to Manitoba “have been quite dry over the past couple of months,” he said.

The long-range forecast shows rain across the middle of the western provinces, which will help, but drier conditions in the northern parts of them and into the territories.

For people living in these regions, Carr said this is a good time to ensure that there is separation between homes and nearby trees, and to reduce the amount of dead brush or other dry material on the ground that could feed a fire.

And oddly, even COVID-19 may play a role in reducing fires, depending on what provinces decide in the coming months about allowing open burning or access to forests.

“It’s a special case kind of year” with COVID restrictions, he said.

“Given that in Canada slightly over half our (forest) fires are caused by human activity in some form, it may reduce the amount of fire that we actually see.

“We may be predicting that weather conditions would lead to fire,” while the actual number of fires remains lower than expected if people are forced to stay out of the woods.

That leaves lightning as the other major cause of fires.

But forecasting all comes down to how accurate the rain forecasts are, he said. And rain is tough to call.

“Predicting precipitation is probably one of the most difficult things that the climate models have to do,” he said.

“They certainly don’t get the precipitation patterns right that much of the time.” And even within a local area there can be a lot of variation: “You might get a lot of rain through a particular strip and yet it’s dry north and south” of it.

“Historically if we compare our forecast with what happens, it’s a real mixed bag.”

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