Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Na’Moks turns his smartphone to show an image of the bare mountain tops near his home in Hagwilget near Hazleton. Stegyawden, the Seven Sisters range and the Kispiox mountain — all visible on a clear day from his porch, are shockingly bereft of snow. This time of year, snowfall is normally accumulating along the peaks and slopes of these mountains generating snowpack. Not this year.

“It’s not looking good up there for the wildfires,” says Na’Moks, pointing to a picture of Hudson Mountain.

Last year, local and national media outlets followed the wake of devastation left by wildfires in communities from the south east to the north west of the province. Disproportionately, those most impacted by wildfires are Indigenous communities.

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief Na’Moks

Alli McCracken for Amnesty International

More than 2.84 million hectares of forest and land has burned in B.C. in the space of a few months.

The Donnie Creek wildfire last year became the largest fire in historical record. The season left Squylax and the forested area around Little Sushwap Lake mangled and charred.

There are currently about 100 active fires in B.C. A number are smouldering hangovers from last year’s record-breaking fire season.

This week, premier David Eby told media that parts of the province, such as the Peace River, East Kootenay and Upper Fraser regions, remain severely dry.

“We’re just profoundly worried about the situation we face,” Eby said. “We’re expecting this to be quite a terrible fire and drought season.”

The Donnie Creek wildfire

B.C. Wildfire Service via CBC

Janelle LaPointe, interim director of public engagement and mobilization at the David Suzuki Foundation, said she recently made an unsettling trip home to Stella’tan.

“I spent a lot of time last summer thinking that everything that didn’t burn last year, is going to burn in 2024,” she said.

“Our territory is high-risk for forest fires. There are still fires from last summer in the ember state even through winter. We are all concerned about the lack of snowpack. The snow has been rapidly melting away. It is unlike any winter I have experienced,” she said.

The majority of the snowpack in the province accumulates by early April. Measured at around the same time, the snow water index (SWI) provides a good indication of the amount of water that will be available for human and environmental needs over the coming spring and summer months.

February to March in B.C. is when we expect to see the most rain and precipitation of the entire year but indices of that precipitation are already far below normal in areas that were also hit heavily by wildfires last season.

“Our territory is high-risk for forest fires. There are still fires from last summer in the ember state even through winter. We are all concerned about the lack of snowpack. The snow has been rapidly melting away. It is unlike any winter I have experienced.”

The snowpack or Snow Basin Index (SBI) in the Lower Fraser is only 47 per cent of normal versus 71 per cent last year.

In Quesnel, the SBI currently stands at 55 per cent over last year’s 91 per cent, and Stakeen-Nas Basin’s sits at 69 per cent of normal versus 85 per cent for 2023. Overall, B.C. snowpack is 39 per cent of the expected normal.

Shannon McPhail, the executive director at Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, says she’s getting very worried.

“I am looking at our snow levels and snowpack report at our (Shedin Creek) snow station and we are below the 25th percentile. We don’t have the meltwater equivalent to support basic ecosystem function,” she said.

Snow accumulation in snowpack is one important determinant of the volume and timing of spring stream run-off, though it isn’t the only factor in predicting what the severity of an upcoming wildfire season will be.

Stegyawden (also known as Hagwilget Peak and the Roche de Boule mountain range), a mountain near Hazelton on unceded Gitxsan Territory, is one of many bare mountain tops with very little snow accumulation, an indication of a record-breaking wildfire season to come.
John Risdale (Chief Na’Moks)

B.C. snow survey technician Malcom Nicol said “that snowpack is just one variable that impacts fire and drought conditions; other considerations include the timing of freshet, overall precipitation, summer weather conditions, and forest management.”

However, spring snowpack melt does impact predictive methods used by fire technicians to determine the potential onset of wildfire dates, and they have to do with the degree of moisture in fine fuel (small twigs, needles and grass) and duff (organic parts of dirt and underground roots).

There are still some months left before officials can say conclusively how bad things will be, fire information officer Emilie Peacock explains.

“While low snowpacks can be an early indicator of severe wildfire seasons, accumulated rainfall through the months of May and June is perhaps the strongest indicator of wildfire season severity. May and June are typically the wettest months of the year and spring rainfall can contribute more to fuel moisture recovery than the winter snowpack,” she said.

“I spent a lot of time last summer thinking that everything that didn’t burn last year, is going to burn in 2024.”

McPhail disagrees with that wait and see approach. “We should all be preparing right now.”

Her words echo a worried LaPointe’s. “My 88-year-old grandmother who was born and raised right here on the Stellakoh (the Stella river). She says that this weather is scary.”

Mitigating risk for Indigenous communities

When it comes to fire, Chief Na’Moks explains how traditional and new ways of thinking are coming together.

“We used to do cultural burning before it was banned,” he explains. “We called it ‘burning for berries’ because the ash that was left on the ground after the controlled fires was great for growing blueberries.”

To fire experts, the benefits of cultural burns go far beyond berries.

Brendan Mercer at the First Nations Emergency Response Society office in Kamloops. The FNESS tracks multiple factors that threaten to contribute to another record fire season.
Sidney Coles

Controlled burns create a patchwork of fuel breaks that make it difficult for wildfires to gain momentum. In 2023, 23 cultural burns were implemented over 2,214 hectares.

There are 61 prescribed fires planned for 2024 in collaboration with First Nations in B.C. through the Crown–Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada program, a nation-wide federal program engaged with communities to determine traditional burn areas and objectives within reserve lands and traditional territories.

Innovation and collaboration also plays a key role in the way First Nations Emergency Response Society (FNESS) tracks multiple factors that threaten to contribute to another record fire season.

Brendan Mercer, a decision support manager at FNESS, has been working for years on bringing new technology to the fight. Since he created the response team, FNESS has developed its own geographic information systems team, which has led to advances in how it applies technology to its work.

Mercer has gained international recognition for his work supporting Indigenous-led emergency management initiatives.

Fire ravaged forest around Little Sushwap Lake.
Sidney Coles

FNESS originated at the First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in 1986, Canada’s National Observer reports. The organization, then called the Society of Native Indian Firefighters, aimed to reduce the number of on-reserve fire deaths through education and safety programming. FNESS has since expanded, covering everything from wildfires to floods and even non-climate-related emergencies. The organization is one-of-a-kind on the continent, Mercer said.

“We’re putting data in the background and enabling communities to collect information and analyse reports. We’re teaching kids in Indigenous communities how to map and pull data layers into tools like this to get them interested in emergency management,” Mercer told Ricochet.

Experts may not be certain about what the 2024 wildfire season will bring. But all agree that the data so far is certainly not looking good.

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