This week the most tragic occurrence of three wildfire firefighter deaths in Washington State brings into focus the importance and severity of this extended very dry season in northwestern North America.
In addition, natural resource extraction operators in northern British Columbia and Alberta have been forced to cease operating due to water supply restrictions.
Severe Dry Weather: Northwestern North America
Drought and heat have combined to make this fire season of the most active in the United States in recent years. Nearly 29,000 firefighters are battling some 100 large blazes across the West, including in Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington, and California.
Three US Forest Service firefighters died after their vehicle crashed as they battled a blaze Wednesday in north-Central Washington, where raging wildfires were advancing on area towns, authorities said. Four other firefighters were injured.
The vehicle was likely caught by flames after it crashed as the three fought a blaze near Twisp, WA, the National Forest Service said to CTV News, relaying information from Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers.
The USFS identified the deceased firefighters late Thursday as Tom Zbyszewski, 20, Andrew Zajac, 26, and Richard Wheeler, 31.
The news came after officials urged people in the popular outdoor-recreation centers of Twisp and Wintrop, in the scenic Methow River valley about 240 kilometres northeast of Seattle, to evacuate as a fire near Twisp grew to about 5 square kilometres.
Military personnel from Joint Base Lewis-McChord are expected to join the Washington state effort by the weekend.
The Okanogan County Emergency Management department issued the order for the towns, which combined have a population of about 1,300.
A larger group of fires burning to the east covered about 130 kilometres and prompted the evacuation of Conconully, home to about 200 people 32 kilometres northwest of Omak — with further urgent evacuation orders issued Wednesday night for an area south of Conconully to the Omak town line.
To the south, more than 1,100 firefighters were combatting a fire that topped 279 square kilometres and was still threatening the resort town of Chelan.
Angela Seydel, a spokesperson for Okanogan Emergency Management, said Wednesday evening that 4,000 homes in the region had been evacuated.
Fires currently burning have scorched more than 1.2 million acres in the Lower 48 states, mostly in the Northwest, and dozens of homes have been destroyed.
The current water shortage is also drawing attention to water-intensive industries, including agriculture, Alberta’s oil sands and BC’s potential liquified natural gas sector. With a drought gripping much of Western Canada, homeowners, business operators and politicians are taking a hard look at water consumption, some for the first time. While bans on lawn-sprinkling tend to be the first prong of drought response plans, there is an increasing emphasis on making better use of the resource.
In the Okanagan region of southern BC, the driest part of Canada, agriculture accounts for about 55 per cent of water use. Outdoor residential use – mostly lawns – accounts for 24 per cent.
While urban residents can stop washing their cars and sprinkling their lawns, ranchers can’t stop feeding their cows.
Alberta has received less than 40 per cent of the normal rainfall compared with a year ago, and hay is selling for up to $150 a bale – double its typical cost.
Epcor, which runs the local water system for greater Edmonton, says the region used about 126.5 million cubic metres of water in 2014 – or about 195 litres per person every day.
In BC, a new water sustainability act is scheduled to take effect next year. The legislation will include new rental rates for industrial users and, for the first time, regulate and apply fees to groundwater.
Alberta Oil Sector
Alberta’s energy regulator restricted applications by oil and natural gas operators to withdraw water from the Athabasca River amid dry conditions in the province.
Restrictions for temporary diversion licenses have also been put in place for the South Saskatchewan, the Peace and Milk rivers, the Alberta Energy Regulator said on its website Monday. The regulator is also calling for voluntary restrictions from existing operators.
The Athabasca River, which is fed by glaciers and streams in the Rocky Mountains, requires about 900 cubic metres (31,780 cubic feet) per second of water in the summer when the flow is at its peak in order to maintain healthy ecosystems, the Alberta environment ministry said on its website. The flow earlier this month was 557 cubic meters per second.
Alberta and other western Canadian provinces have suffered from above-normal temperatures this summer after a spring with less precipitation than normal, according to the Alberta agriculture ministry.
Earlier this week, Alberta’s energy regulator suspended a total of 73 temporary industry licenses to take water from the Athabasca and Peace rivers because of low flows. Alberta Environment reports that water flows at the Athabasca station are about 43 per cent below average for this time of year.
Oil-sands miners use water to process bitumen, and have pledged to lower by half the amount of fresh water used in production as the industry counters criticism that it pollutes too much. Members of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, or COSIA, including Suncor Energy and Royal Dutch Shell, aim to lower the amount of fresh water used to process bitumen to 0.2 barrels per barrel of bitumen by 2022 from 0.4 now, the group said on November 25.