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Weather Wise: Canadian Wildfires

Posted at 5:31 PM, May 22, 2023

HELENA — In western Canada, wildfires have raged this spring in parts of Alberta and British Columbia.

The fires have sent early-season smoke pouring south from Montana to the east coast.

Total acreage burned this year is 2000 times more than in the same period last year.

Wildfires in the boreal and high latitude forests of this region typically begin in May, but the more explosive fires typically happen later in the season, but not always.

In May of 2016, the Fort McMurray Fire kicked off another dubious start to the wildfire season. Fort McMurray in Alberta was evacuated and subsequently burned.

This time of year is dangerous for wildfires. Fires are between the snow melt and vegetation turing green, dead vegetation gives them ample fuel.

The amount of snowpack is the critical factor. This was a very lean winter for western Canada when it comes to the snowpack. The storm track this past winter trended farther south. It led to all-time record snow in parts of the western U.S., including California and Utah.

A similar situation happened in the winter of 1982-83.

At the time, environmental Canadian climatologists proclaimed 1982-1983 the year without a winter. Much of Canada saw above-average temperatures and below-average snow.

But while the past season and 82-83 are very similar and comparable, the winter of 82-83 was one of the first El Nino conditions reported. This past winter was La Nina.

Regardless, the storm track farther south contributed to an early wildfire season in Canada and has the potential to limit wildfire activity across much of the western United States.