A long, hot, dry summer is being predicted for the South Okanagan.
Those planning relaxing days by the lake may be happy, but experts are predicting the weather will exacerbate the upcoming wildfire season.
Meteorologists said a large mass of water in the eastern Pacific Ocean is influencing the air mass over Western Canada, significant because it means the dry hot conditions will stick around for some time.
“Because of that we’ve been warmer than normal pretty much every month throughout the winter,” said André Besson, meteorologist with Environment Canada. “We expect this condition to persist well into the summer.”
He said that warm air absorbs more moisture than cold air, and with unstable conditions come more thunderstorms.
“In terms of what we can see, that may exacerbate drought conditions over the Interior and also that means we have more potential for fire hazards, especially if you have lightning activity triggering those fires,” Besson said. “Basically that means you have that much more fuel for forest fires. The conditions are very dry and it doesn’t take much for fire to spread with those conditions.”
B.C.’s Forest Practices Board is warning that little progress has been made in protecting urban interface areas from catastrophic wildfire. The board followed up on the report and recommendations made to governments and communities regarding wildfires in 2010 on Wednesday, saying the work done in the past five years has not addressed the hazard in a meaningful way.
The report does say that some “excellent work” has been done, but the millions of dollars committed to the effort from the province are only a drop in the bucket compared to the scale of the issue.
“B.C. has been lucky it hasn’t had any catastrophic urban interface fires since Kelowna in 2003, but that has been luck and nothing more,” said Tim Ryan, Forest Practices Board chair, in a press release.
“In 2010 we said that both provincial and local governments need to support forest fuel reduction efforts and homeowners have to take responsibility and FireSmart their properties,” Ryan said “Less that 10 per cent of hazardous forest fuels have been treated — at enormous cost to government — and few property owners have taken the steps to protect themselves from wildfire.”
The public, as well as local governments, are being urged to take personal responsibility and ask local politicians and fire departments about the risks in their community.
The board is concerned that British Columbians are not prepared for what could happen this summer.
“Government does not have the resources to respond to every wildfire and protect every community that is at rise,” Ryan said. “The solution has to be in prevention and readiness to withstand a wildfire.”
Of the 46 fires so far this year in the Kamloops Fire Centre area, which includes Penticton, 43 have been caused by humans.
Kayla Pepper, fire information officer with Wildfire Management Branch, said every little bit of help from residents goes a long way.
“Going into fire season, the biggest impact residents can have is clear debris from around their houses. In addition, if they plan on putting up a new roof this summer they can make sure it’s fire rated.”
Pepper added there are a number of landscaping principles including using more fire-resistant vegetation, which can help turn the tide. While it may be out of residents hands, this is a key time for the region to collect precipitation as well Pepper said.
“It’s hard to tell what the fire season will look like because it depends on the amount of precipitation we get from basically right now going into the latter half of June,” she said. “The fact that we have been receiving some precipitation throughout the Interior and Okanagan is a positive thing for us because if we don’t get that precipitation in the coming weeks we could be setting ourselves up for a violative fire season.”
Pepper said fire teams are already dealing with high drought codes, the numeric rating of moisture content in deep, compact organic layers. She said the fire season is driven by the short, day-to-day weather with wind, relative humidity, temperature and precipitation being the four big factors.
“Penticton itself is located in an area that is fire prone. Fire is a natural part of the landscape, so the forest does want to burn on a cycle every few years,” Pepper said.
Residents can stem the tide by making sure their property doesn’t have combustable debris within 10 metres of their home.
“Fire is unfortunately a reality of living in some of those communities so we want to make sure they are doing anything they can ahead of time,” Pepper said. “People doing that yard clean up, we encourage them to look for alternatives, so composting or chipping,”
Open burning has been prohibited in the area, any fire larger than a campfire is banned.