FIRE WEATHER SEVERITY: ‘Abnormally dry’ conditions across Pacific Northwest could spell long wildfire season for British Columbia (May 2019)

Note to Reader:

British Columbia’s climate is changing; and change is occurring at a rate much faster than anticipated. Looking back, 2015 marks the beginning of a ‘new normal’ defined by recurring extremes. Floods, drought, forest fires and windstorms – all are happening within the same year, and year after year. 

As the weather again begins to heat up, the spectre of another potentially destructive wildfire season in 2019 looms large. This follows on the heels of a winter season which had below average snowpack – for example, approximately 70% of normal in the Lower Fraser, Okanagan and Vancouver Island regions. 

The perspective presented below is abridged from an opinion piece co-authored by Bob Sandford and Kim Stephens, and published by the Vancouver Sun in September 2018. OP-ED ARTICLE: Province must halt the decline of its biodiversity – Waterway restoration key to helping British Columbia deal with climate change

British Columbia’s new reality (Photo Credit: Michael Blackstock, Summer 2017)

Fire weather severity in southwestern B.C. will be well above average in June, based on monthly forecast generated by Canadian Seasonal to Inter-annual Prediction System (CanSIPS)

On May 1st, the U.S.-based National Interagency Fire Center released its weather outlook for May into August 2019. It presents worrying signs for the upcoming wildfire season, with the Pacific Northwest already experiencing “abnormally dry” conditions, and some areas entering a moderate drought. The weather pattern outlined in the document affects British Columbia as well.

Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Canadian Seasonal to Inter-annual Prediction System (CanSIPS), paints a similar picture, with fire-danger maps for early May showing many areas of B.C. with a “high” and even “very high” fire risk.

Also, the Climate Prediction Centre at the US National Weather Service has declared that El Niño conditions are present in the Pacific Ocean. Typically, El Niño is linked to warmer winters across British Columbia, with a trend towards a lower than normal snowpack.

While this year’s low snowpack follows this trend for El Niño winters, low snowpacks are not the result of warmer winter temperatures. Rather, as the BC River Forecast Centre reports in its latest Snow Bulletin, low snowpacks are the result of persistent colder-than-normal temperatures and extremely dry weather through February and March.

Monthly and seasonal forecast maps present predictions of fire weather severity. Predictions are based on Environment and Climate Change Canada’s CanSIPS.

Not the end of the world; just the beginning of another

2018 was a teachable year. Last summer, if you wanted to know what climate change will mean to your future, all you had to do was be outside to see what is to come. The entire Northern Hemisphere was impacted by extreme weather – drought, forest fires or flooding.

Week after week, we in B.C. were unable to leave the smoky room of a rapidly changing climate. Prominent scientists say 2018 marks a turning point in human history. We may have crossed an invisible threshold into a new climate regime.

But it is not the end of the world; just the beginning of another. B.C. is one of the last places on the planet where it is still possible to transcend the climate debate and create a better world. B.C. has enough remaining natural capital to protect and restore its way back to true sustainability.

Will We Adapt?

We are at a moment of truth. Will we adapt? Water defines B.C., and the rhythms of water are changing. We have the knowledge and tools to restore balance to the water cycle, at least in the built environment. Can we, will we? Most importantly, will we get it right?

Yes, of course we can – but only if civil engineers, urban planners and decision-makers change their mind-sets and grasp the inherent complexity and unpredictability of working with natural systems. The situation calls for transformation in how we value nature and service land, and especially how we reconnect hydrology and ecology to mimic the natural flow pattern in urban and suburban streams.

Reflections on the Indigenous Perspective

“The signs of climate change are all around us. Earth mother’s lifeblood (i.e. water) is becoming sparse in the Pacific Northwest, and some Indigenous Elders say this is happening because humans are not showing respect to water,” continues Michael Blackstock.

In 2008, Michael Blackstock was appointed to a UNESCO Expert Panel for a 4-year term in recognition of his pioneer work in developing Blue Ecology. This ecological philosophy is founded on interweaving Indigenous knowledge and Western science. In November 2017, Michael was the keynote presenter at the Blue Ecology Workshop organized by the Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC.

“Water withdraws itself from the disrespectful.  Water is transforming from ice, to sea and river water, and then to traversing atmospheric rivers.  Water was sleeping as ice, but now it is moving rapidly and unpredictably around our planet.

“Some places are deluged, while others lay tongue-parched. It’s the pace and intensity of this change that should shock and scare us all.  Hope is active leadership.  The Indigenous rooted theory of Blue Ecology, or a water-first approach to understanding and dealing with climate change, is a well-spring of hope,” concludes Michael Blackstock.

Indigenous elders repeatedly remind us that our work in our time is all about future generations,” adds Bob Sanford, Epcor Chair, Climate & Water Security, United Nations University. “The Indigenous commitment to seven generations forward is not a political stump speech. It is an ethic we must all share if we want a worthwhile future, here or anywhere.”

Shrink our Destructive Footprint / Grow the Restorative Footprint

Local governments are implementers. This means they can be change leaders. They can integrate climate adaptation into the activities and actions of engineered and natural asset management – or flipping it around, integrate asset management into the activities and actions of climate adaptation.

Reconnect Hydrology and Ecology

At the Parksville 2019 Symposium last month, an over-arching message was: Getting it right starts with recognition that hydrology is the engine that powers ecological services.

But getting it right depends on provincial and local government alignment to require ‘design with nature’ standards of practice for servicing of land – so that communities shrink their ‘destructive footprint’ while at the same time growing their ‘restorative footprint’.

Also at Parksville 2019, author Storm Cunningham mapped out a way forward that not only allows for economic growth but the renewal of our natural systems too. He describes this as the RECONOMICS Process. He identified six steps and emphasized that “a process that is not complete is not a process at all”.

Call to Action

We cannot restore lost biodiversity but we can halt its decline and consciously bend the curve in an upwards direction. Through restorative development, we can improve where we live. We can be an example for the world to follow.

We can make sustainable attainable if we work together. Restore. Restore. Restore. Let that be our imperative.

“The components are familiar, so all places have some. But none have all. A process with missing components is not a process. You can add to it, but do not subtract,” advises Storm Cunningham.