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Diminished snowpack in Rocky Mountains raises wildfire concerns

Mountain forests are brimming with the vitality of spring in some areas of Banff National Park in what should be the dead of winter.

Babbling creeks are stirring back to life; green moss pokes through the last ice crystals along the banks, struggling to hang on under the unseasonably warm sun. Even some mountain peaks sit bare and exposed.

“That’s why I came to Canada, to see the snow,” said Michael from Germany “There’s hardly any snow, especially for the end of January/beginning of February. There should be a lot more. Same in Europe, we are having the same conditions so it’s scary.”

Dr. John Pomeroy, a Canmore-based hydrologist and the director of Global Institute for Water Security, said the snowpack in the Rockies west of Calgary only 70 per cent of where it should be and is lower than the same time last year.

“It’s time to become concerned about this. Yes, we can still have some storms sweep through and build up our snowpack at the last minute but that’s becoming less and less likely everyday,” explained Pomeroy. “Snow is melting at high elevations in the alpine in January, I’ve never seen this before, we are actually losing snowpack rather than gaining it in winter.

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“A very dangerous direction for us right now.”

It’s a concern not lost on Parks Canada. The organization has been working hard on wildfire mitigation work. Along the boundary between Yoho National Park and Banff National Park, logging trucks are in the process of  hauling out 49 hectares of forest, making way for a large fireguard.

“It’s an important feature that we are putting on the landscape,” said Shelley Tamelin, a wildfire risk reduction project manager with Parks Canada. “This area is prone to lightning strikes and we have chosen this area strategically to try and protect the communities of Field and Lake Louise in the event of wildfires.

“Because of climate change, the fire seasons are starting earlier (and) they are longer. The fires themselves are more intense so what we are trying to do in Parks Canada is being prepared proactively”

The fireguard is scheduled to be complete by March. Officials remain hopeful that the bulk of the snow has yet to fall as significant precipitation would mitigate wildfire risk.


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