Top ten weather stories for 2010: story seven

Table of Contents

7. British Columbia Forest Fires…Costly and Smoky

A map of Canada highlighting the province of British Columbia as having been the scene of some significant forest fires.

Forest fire near Peachland, British Columbia, on July 12, 2010.  Dennis Dudley © Environment Canada 2010.

The 2010 fire season across British Columbia was short but expensive. Given the dry winter and early spring, forecasters predicted a busy season. But once the spring rain started, it didn’t stop until the province was well watered. Moving into summer, conditions changed with hot and sunny weather in July drying out forest fuels quickly. Minimal lightning activity kept fire starts down, but the fire threat grew as the month wore on. Vancouver recorded its second driest July on record, with less than a 1 mm of rain, and campfire bans were in place across about 70 per cent of the province. On July 28 fire danger ratings were at high to extreme when lightning storms hit the central interior. Within four days, the number of fires almost doubled from 600 to 1,100. Fire crews and officials scrambled as fires rapidly consumed valuable forests, forcing evacuations in several locations. Conditions started to calm in mid-August but only for a few days. At the end of a period of scorching temperatures in the mid- to high-30°Crange, a weather front with strong gusts passed through the central interior, causing significant and unprecedented fire growth. Nearly 100,000 hectares (one-third of the entire season’s total) burned in only 24 hours.  But as quickly as fires ignited, the fire season ended. At the end of August, cooler temperatures and timely rains reduced fire activity province-wide. By the first week of September, all remaining evacuation orders and alerts had been rescinded and the 1,100 firefighters from out-of-province returned home.  Officials described it as one of the most concentrated fire seasons in recent history. The hardest hit areas were in the central interior around Williams Lake, through the Chilcotin, and the area south of Houston, Burns Lake and Fraser Lake.  The B.C. Wildfire Management Branch reported that the province spent about $230 million fighting fires this year – only 2009 and 2003 were costlier. In total, British Columbia had 1,678 wildfire starts (15 per cent fewer than normal) but the most forest area consumed in at least 10 years – nearly three and a half times the norm. Sadly, two air tanker pilots lost their lives in the line of duty on August 1.

An aside to the wildfire season was the thick smoke that affected air quality as far west as Vancouver and as far east as Northern Ontario. On August 20, authorities issued an air quality warning for Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. Smoke advisories were also issued for communities closer to the flames, including Terrace, Quesnel, Prince George, and Williams Lake. Excess smoke made it difficult for aircraft and ground crews fighting fires. Clouds of stinking smoke stained the air over much of Western Canada, reducing visibility and sparking province-wide air quality/health advisories in Alberta and Saskatchewan. It was the first time on record that Saskatchewan issued a health advisory because of forest fires in B.C. Some hospital emergency departments saw up to a 20 per cent increase in the number of respiratory complaints.  In Calgary, the air pollution soared to concentrations not seen in seven years with the city skyline barely visible beneath the haze.

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