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EDITORIAL: Warm weather, low snowpack concern for wildfire season

EDITORIAL: The unseasonably warm winter has continued to remain in the Bow Valley.
Cartoon by Patrick LaMontagne/

The unseasonably warm winter has continued to remain in the Bow Valley.

With the exception of a period of unbearable cold earlier in January, the communities of the valley have experienced weather resembling fall or spring rather than the typical deluge of snow flurries.

But while it’s refreshing to wear shorts in January, the short- and long-term implications can be dire for the region.

The four ski hills in the region – Lake Louise Ski Resort, Mount Norquay Ski Resort, Sunshine Village Ski Resort and Nakiska Ski Area – all depend on getting pounded by snow. Though they have the capability to make snow, reliance on the real thing is necessary.

The upcoming FIS Cross Country World Cup at the Canmore Nordic Centre will also have some of the world’s top athletes competing, with potentially higher than normal temperatures.

For outdoor adventurists, the risk of avalanches has largely been present throughout this winter as the higher than normal temperatures have presented melting conditions.

Banff had its sixth warmest December in 135 years of recorded data. It followed it up in January by breaking records dating back to 1887, which had two of the warmest January days in the nearly century-and-a-half of data.

According to Environment Canada, the amount of snowfall is only a third of what it traditionally has been in January.

Bow Valley Provincial Park in Kananaskis Country equally set a record on Jan. 29, hitting 13.5 Celsius.

The weather is largely associated with El Niño – similar to past years like 1997 and 2015 – and can occur every two to seven years.

However, the changing climate has undoubtedly played a role with recent winters also providing less snow for the region.

Drought conditions throughout Alberta have scientists ringing alarm bells on low river levels – particularly in the South Saskatchewan River Basin that the Bow Valley is part of – and bracing for the likelihood of water restrictions at some point this year.

Those conditions not only influence drinking water, but also businesses and agricultural needs. When less production occurs in oil and gas and farming – where water is vital – it leads to a price increase with demand remaining high and supply lower than normal.

Most concerning, however, is not the impact on the coming weeks, but that of the spring and summer months. While the valley has long relied on the monsoon June to protect it from the threat of wildfire, the snowy months are critical in mitigating its risk to the communities.

Last year was the worst wildfire season on record for Canada, with 18.5 million hectares of land burned in more than 6,000 fires. It smashed the previous record of 7.6 million hectares in 1989.

The Bow Valley largely got off the hook in 2023. With the exception of the Compound Meadows prescribed burn getting out-of-control and offering continued political drama from its results, the region largely only dealt with a smattering of poor air quality days.

Though all parts of the country were impacted in some form, data from Natural Resources Canada show the bulk of them were in the west coast of the country, involving Alberta, British Columbia and the Yukon and Northwest territories.

The unfortunate reality is with little snow this winter and continued drought conditions, when wildfire season begins March 1, the spring, summer and fall could be particularly brutal months in the region.

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