A shot of water by the Quesnel Fire Department brought this interface fire under control, April 30, but sometimes the results aren't so positive. (photo by Karen Powell, Quesnel Fire Department)

Hazarding a guess at the Quesnel snowpack’s hidden dangers

Will it be fire? Will it be floods? Will it be both?

Provincial officials held a technical briefing to explain the snowpack conditions across B.C., and issued at Snow Survey & Water Supply Bulletin after assessing the data that came in from observation sights, April 1. For the Quesnel area it is a complex guess because there are signs of a drought despite a solid snowpack.

The snowpack is at 103 per cent of normal (exactly average plus three per cent). Most other parts of the province are below or well below average. However, the neighbouring community to the north, the Upper Fraser, is at 111 per cent of normal so that could pose a flood risk for Quesnel later in the freshet.

The Chilcotin region is a whopping 241 per cent of normal, as of April 1. That won’t cause flooding in Quesnel, but there are many personal and economic ties.

Everything depends on the melt, said officials. Temperatures across B.C. were colder than usual, for the start of spring, but this past weekend broke heat records.

“The coldest relative anomalies occurred in northern and interior regions like Fort St John, Prince George, Quesnel and Williams Lake,” said the bulletin.

While that was great for the slow, nonthreatening release of runoff water at this early stage of spring, there is a more concerning side effect to that. The heat over April 28-30 weekend is showing why. Sure, the snows in the bottomlands are melting nice and easy, but up in the mountains it was not melting at all and in fact was still be accumulating up until the middle of April.

“Really, the key time for risk is that May, June period and in response to how that snow is melting,” said David Campbell, head of B.C.’s River Forecast Centre. “The snowpack is one piece of the puzzle, it gives us the amount of water that will come down in the spring, but the weather is equally if not more of a critical factor, in terms of how the snow melts: will it come down quickly? And is there any additional rainfall that will add to the runoff in the river?”

The Fraser River, when measured at the town of Hope and compared to past years, was at exactly even with its average, at mid-April.

“The Upper Fraser and Quesnel River are both at average water volumes,” the bulletin reported.

The Upper Fraser contribution to the river is about 30 per cent of its total volume, and the Quesnel River contributes about nine per cent. These are the areas at or above normal snowpacks.

What that all means is a warm snap could push it above its normal levels in quick order, and this region just had a significantly warm snap.

However, and in addition to the flood concern, is a drought concern. Yes, there is one.

The snow accumulation in this region came mostly in the last month of winter. Going way back to the first month of winter, there was very cold weather and little precipitation. That means the ground froze in a dry state, so the runoff could toboggan over that icy surface to the river valleys below without seeping deeply.

“Having snow on the ground does not resolve our drought issues,” said Matt MacDonald, a lead forecaster with the BC Wildfire Service. “As we get into the spring – the windy, warmer season – a lot of that snow actually sublimates, which means evaporates directly into the atmosphere without actually entering the fuels or the soils. And the underlying condition of the soil, be it frozen or after a prolonged drought, can actually become what we call hydrophobic, which means it loses its capacity to absorb water. There are a lot of variables at play, but given the choice, we will take snow over no snow. And that lightning perspective is where it tends to help the most. Lightning tends to strike ridge-tops, higher elevations, and those are majoritarily covered in snows right now.”

The bad news is, there were already 11 wildfires in B.C. in the first two weeks of April, and dozens flared up at the end of this past week, in this region and elsewhere. Summer fire season has arrived already.

Worse, officials noticed the intensity of these fires completely consumed tree stumps (where wood is densest, most moist, and the hardest part of a tree to burn) and climbed down the root system into the “duff” or the organic elements of the surface dirt. There wasn’t enough natural moisture to put up much of a fight.

Natural cycles dictate that more lighting and human activity (the two leading causes of forest fires) are only going to increase in the weeks ahead, just as that moisture deficit is really exposed.

“As you work your way into the Chilcotin / West Cariboo, that’s where conditions are drier and where drought codes are more elevated right now,” MacDonald said.

Drier, yet snowier. It’s a paradox just waiting to thaw loose. But the BC Wildfire Service isn’t waiting to find out how the temperatures and snowpacks will dance together. After what one official called the biggest single-year investment in history in the province’s wildfire service, there are plumes of smoke rising from the west and southwest of Quesnel – but smoke that emergency officials are pleased to see, because they set those controlled fires themselves in strategic locations to eat up the fuel before a ravenous wildfire comes for it.

“It’s something we are very passionate about: seeing more good fire on the landscape, in the interest of reducing the risk as well as protecting cultural and traditional knowledge within First Nation communities,” said Cliff Chapman, director of wildfire operations for the Province. “We are partnering with First Nations communities throughout all of our six fire centres to try and encourage that safe use of fire. Using fire as a tool to manage the risk, in the spring and in the fall, is really effective for B.C.”

READ MORE: Warnings issued for Quesnel and Cariboo region (Flood information from B.C. gov)

READ MORE: Hot spell hikes risks of flooding, avalanches and fire across British Columbia

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