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MD of Bighorn climate resilience plan highlights heightened risks of fire, flood

“It will be interesting to see how we can get some of these things implemented and just to have that awareness of what could happen.”

MD OF BIGHORN – Risks of wildland fire, groundwater and overland flooding and severe drought are expected to increase over the next 30 years in the MD of Bighorn, according to a climate resilience and adaptation plan prepared for the municipal district.

The plan aims to provide crucial insight into safeguarding MD communities and ecosystems against anticipated intensified impacts of climate change, based on historical climate data from 1976-2005 and projection modelling from 2041-2070.  

Non-profit All One Sky, in collaboration with the University of Regina’s Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative (PARC) and Associated Engineering, prepared the plan with insight from MD staff and local stakeholders.

Key project goals were to prioritize climate risks facing Bighorn and develop a climate adaptation action plan to address priority climate risks.

A risk assessment looked at 17 climate events with potential impacts to health and wellbeing, natural environment, infrastructure and economic activities.

Risk levels rated very high based on damage to homes, injuries, potential fatalities and evacuations, included wildland fires in heavily forested areas of Harvie Heights, Dead Man’s Flats, Lac Des Arcs, Exshaw and Benchlands.

“How this climate risk assessment worked is that we assessed the likelihood of these events happening, either using climate projection data or academic literature to think about how the likelihood of different events is going to change – heatwaves, droughts, floods, storms,” said All One Sky’s director of climate adaptation and resilience Jeff Zukiwsky, in a presentation to the MD’s governance and priorities committee Tuesday (March 26).

Wildfire smoke, invasive pests and disease outbreak, increased surface water temperatures, severe seasonal drought and heat wave events were also rated as very high risk.

Groundwater flooding was rated high for its potential impact on flood damage to homes and buildings in low-lying areas such as Exshaw, not unlike groundwater flooding seen in the community in 2020, due to an anticipated increase in heavy precipitation events.

The climate adaptation and resilience report notes the MD can expect to see hotter summers, milder winters and more precipitation – including higher total annual precipitation amounts in most seasons (except for summer) by the 2050s. Climate modelling showed average annual precipitation is expected to increase by about 50mm, to 769mm, in the 2050s from an average baseline mean of 719mm measured from 1976-2005.

More extreme precipitation events are expected, with a longer growing and frost-free season and more extreme weather – such as windstorms, hail, freezing rain, wildfire smoke and tornadoes, and changing environmental conditions, including streamflow patterns, water temperatures, changes to forests and other ecosystems with more invasive species and pests, and the potential for new vector-borne diseases.

Temperature projections estimated more hot days in the climate model’s median range – in the 2050s – with an average of 2.7 days per year above 30 Celcius compared to baseline data collected from 1970-2005 at an average of 0.1 days. Higher projections in the 90th percentile forecasted upwards of 6.1 days where temperatures rise above 30 C.

Projections also forecasted fewer very cold days – below -30 C – at an average of three days compared to a historical average of 7.1 days, and 40 more frost-free days per year compared to an average of 119.

Average annual temperature is predicted to rise by 2.5 C.

In response, the report made 21 recommendations to address changing climate, including pursuing assessments to understand the impacts of wildfire on water supply, drainage capacity in communities and major access and egress routes, providing alternate water delivery systems and evaluating the feasibility of updating the MD’s land use bylaw to restrict high water consumption.

Other recommendations were around how the MD could enhance public awareness and support around anticipated climate changes.

“That could be things like website content or printed materials to help residents understand how the climate is projected to change, what the impacts of that are and what they could do to protect themselves and their properties, and how they could support the Municipal District of Bighorn,” said Zukiwsky.

Another option considers a home improvement program to help residents and improve the resilience of their homes.

“In an ideal world, that would be like a granting program, but it’s potentially a high-cost item … it’s really about trying to figure out ways to support residents to improve the resilience of their homes and properties,” he said.

MD of Bighorn Reeve Lisa Rosvold asked whether there were considerations given in the report to access and egress in the event of wildfire given risk levels anticipated to increase, however, it was not specifically included in the recommendations.

She noted some MD hamlets only have one way in and one way out “and it’s the same way.”

“If there was a wildfire that came in and blocked that route – was that one of the action items?” she asked.

Bighorn’s environmental fieldman Kendra Tippe said there were over 60 actions that were brainstormed in action planning sessions that were pared down to the final 21 recommendations listed, however, it was discussed and is still a consideration that could be looped into other recommendations.

Rosvold, who was the only committee member present with questions on the report – committee members Rick Tuza and Alice James were absent – asked about next steps for the plan.

The final climate adaptation and resilience action plan will be posted on the MD’s website and will be brought forward to the April 9 council meeting for potential approval.

If the plan is approved, the MD would then look at steps to implementing some of the recommended actions, however, no timeline was given on any specific actions.

“This was a really interesting study to do and I’m glad we were successful in getting a grant to get this done,” said Rosvold. “It’s given us a lot to think about and it’s actually interesting because we’ve got another information piece coming up on a net zero feasibility study for a build we’re working on for our [operations] shop in the MD, and some of these things, I think, need to be considered as we’re building that.

“It will be interesting to see how we can get some of these things implemented and just to have that awareness of what could happen.”

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.

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