Top ten weather stories for 2009: story two

Table of Contents

2. B.C. Burning Up

Map of Canada highlighting B.C. significant forest fire season

Photo of a lightning bolt in the night sky over the Kelowna forest fires. Photo: Dudley Dennis © Environment Canada, 2009

The forest fire season in British Columbia began early in May and exploded in July. According to the British Columbia Ministry of Forests and Range Wildfire Management Branch, the province saw 3,200 fires.  Of those, 100 were considered significant with nearly half of those prompting evacuation orders. Wildfires scorched 68,000 hectares of land across the province – almost seven times more than last year’s fire season. Costs of direct fire fighting were enormous, close to $400 million or six times that budgeted, surpassing the most expensive season on record in 2003. At times, more than 3,000 fire fighters and 1,000 support personnel battled the flames. Crews included workers from nearly every province and territory in Canada, from the United States and, for the first time, fire specialists from Australia and New Zealand.

All indicators pointed to a heavy forest fire season for the province in 2009. Tinder-dry conditions in forests and parks across the province had fire fighters on high alert throughout the spring and summer. Never had the forests of British Columbia been so dry in winter-spring-summer. A persistent high pressure system, anchored near the Pacific coast for most of April through July, blocked storms from reaching the coast and encouraged a southerly flow with clear skies and record warm temperatures. From December through August, B.C.’s Pacific Coast was the driest in 62 years of records, 24 per cent below normal. Even more telling, nine of the last ten years were drier than normal with five being among the driest ten years. Similarly, in the B.C. Interior, nine of the past ten years were drier than normal and eight were warmer. Beginning in late spring, soaring temperatures sucked moisture from trees and the ground, creating a preheating effect. Low humidity dried up the fuel. A record number of dry lightning flashes sparked fires while gusty winds stoked the flames. Exacerbating the wildfire threat in recent years was the large swaths of beetle-killed timber. At the height of the 2009 forest fire season, virtually every region of British Columbia was ablaze, including a dozen fires threatening nearby communities. Almost 85 per cent of the province was under a high or extreme fire alert with about 100 new fires starting every day. Fire fighters worked feverishly in rugged terrain to control the hot spots. Making things more difficult, water in lakes, rivers and reservoirs reached alarmingly low levels. For example, Okanagan Lake recorded its sixth-lowest inflow on record.

Unlike the wildfires of 2003, residential and business properties were spared in 2009. A credit to the tireless fire fighters, only a few buildings were destroyed compared with 2003 when more than 200 homes were lost. Further, the number of forced evacuations was much lower, with just a few thousands this year versus 50,000 in 2003.

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