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Bad start to fire season doesn't necessarily mean bad finish: expert

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May 16, 2016 - 6:30 PM

VANCOUVER - The dramatic start to this year's fire season across Western Canada and Ontario doesn't necessarily mean the ferocious trend will continue into the summer, experts say.

John Innes, dean of forestry at the University of British Columbia, said weather is the single largest influence on wildfires, which makes forecasting extremely challenging.

"It's always very difficult with weather and with climate," Innes said in an interview on Monday.

"We hear about what's going to happen next week and it can be totally wrong. The same goes for fire weather.

While visiting an evacuation centre in Edmonton more than a week ago, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the intense and early start to wildfires this year could spell a long and difficult season for all of Canada. He specified his remarks were not directed exclusively at Alberta, where the province is still reeling from the firestorm in Fort McMurray.

Tens of thousands of residents in and around the community in Alberta's oilfields were forced to leave when a blaze turned on the city earlier this month, razing 2,400 buildings.

Innes said so far, 2016 has been the most destructive fire season in recorded Canadian history, surpassing the damage done in 2011 when another northern Alberta fire destroyed part of the community of Slave Lake.

Natural Resources Canada says as of May 11, 1,429 fires had flared up across the country this season compared with a 10-year-average of 1,070. The fires have burned through more than 4,200 square kilometres, which is 41 times the 10-year average.

"Things can change pretty well overnight," Innes said about fire conditions.

"It makes it very, very difficult to forecast what's going to happen out in July or August."

Kerry Anderson, a fire research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, agreed that an early start to the fire season doesn't indicate increased risk down the road.

"Fire seasons vary dramatically from year to year," he said. "Some start early and enter like a lion and exit like a lamb, while other years it's the opposite."

The cycle of El Nino and La Nina weather systems is the strongest tool for forecasting wildfires, Anderson said, adding that the pending arrival of La Nina's cooler, more moist conditions in the coming months will likely quell some of the wildfires and bring the fire danger down to a manageable level.

"The target is to get through the next month or so," said Anderson. "We've certainly had a bumpy May so far and we've got a ways to go."

Claire Allen of the BC Wildfire Service said the biggest determinant of the latter portion of the fire season on the West Coast is the amount of rain that falls in June.

In B.C. so far, 265 fires have burned about 825 square kilometres of land, an increase in the 10-year average.

The remainder of the fire season is still up in the air, Allen said.

"It's kind of anyone's guess at this point," she said. "We're just sort of waiting for the rain and we'll see what'll happen from there."

— Follow @gwomand on Twitter

News from © The Canadian Press , 2016
The Canadian Press

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