This story is from Oct. 2022. If you’re here in June 2023, you’ll be able to find June 7 satellite imagery here (after the satellite passes overhead.)
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The smoke in the valley today is coming from a pair of fires near Harrison Lake. Subscribe to The Current to get updates every morning on the Fraser Valley fire situation, links to the latest smoke and fire updates, and a ton of other local news.
As birds fly south for the winter, smoke is heading north. This isn’t how fall is supposed to go.
If you’re wondering why October has turned into smoke-tober, satellite imagery—and a glance at the recent historic weather—may answer your questions.
Wildfires that started in late summer have roared back to life thanks to record heat and an unprecedented fall dry spell. Outside of Hope, the Flood Falls Trail fire is back kicking up smoke, while even larger blazes in Washington State are sending huge amounts of smoke northward.
Eyes in the sky
Every day of every year, far above the earth’s surface, NASA satellites circle the globe, photographing it from space. (You can check out the latest imagery for yourself here. We used images from Oct. 16 for this story because Oct. 17 images were not yet available.)
The results can be breathtaking but, in mid-October, focusing on the Fraser Valley usually only gets one a good view of the tops of clouds—like the shot below from Oct. 16, 2019.
Occasionally, you’ll get a clear snapshot of the ground below, an astronaut’s-eye view of one of those glorious fall days that shine down on the valley.
Those are rare. But, when they do occur, occasionally those satellites pick up a whiff of smoke coming from a wildfire.
On Oct. 17, 2013, for instance, wildfire smoke could be seen in the north of the province and on Vancouver Island.
Eight times in the last two decades fire bans have been in place in mid-October, BC Wildfire Service spokesperson Marg Drysdale told The Current Monday.
Still, Drysdale said that she couldn’t recall seeing quite so many active fires at this time of year.
And the situation is even worse south of the border, where many large fires are burning in the northern Cascades.
Across southeastern BC and northern Washington, fires that started weeks or months ago have sprung back to life. No Canadian fires are threatening any communities, but they and the blazes in Washington State are pumping out huge amounts of smoke. Wind patterns and geography have sent that smoke directly toward the Fraser Valley.
From near and far
Satellite imagery from Oct. 16 shows that most of the smoke affecting the valley is coming from several fires located in remote forests in Washington state, along with a couple in Canada.
The trail of smoke toward Canada begins with two fires about 80km south of Chilliwack Lake.
The Suiattle River and Boulder Lake blazes were discovered in late August and have burned a combined 1,600 hectares. That’s relatively modest in size. But after simmering through late September and early October, they have sprung to life over the last week. As temperatures have warmed and the fires have increased their burn rate, they have sent large clouds of smoke due north.
That smoke has combined with smoke from a handful of other fires in northern Washington. In particular, it has mixed with smoke from the Chilliwack Complex, a series of fires located just south of Chilliwack Lake and the US border. The first of the fires was detected on Sept. 1. Since then, the combined fires have burned more than 4,000 hectares. In recent days, the blazes have moved northward, toward the border. NASA heat imagery suggests the blaze is now within a kilometre of the border and just a couple kilometres from the south end of Chilliwack Lake. (The red dots show recent hot spots. Isolated red dots in the west sometimes represent industrial activity.)
Meanwhile, in the Fraser Valley’s backyard, several fires are burning. One near the border, but on the Canadian side, is burning at the southern end of the Skagit valley. That 1,300-hectare lightning-caused fire is threatening no structures and is being monitored by fire officials. And the large Heather Lake fire in Manning Park also continues to send smoke north.
And just outside of Hope, the Hope Falls Fire has come back to life and demonstrated how hard it is to fully extinguish a blaze on a steep, densely forested mountainside. (We reported on the unique characteristics of a coastal wildfire last month.) The fire has not grown much and is still classified as “held,” meaning it is only burning within containment lines. Drysdale said the recent activity took place in steep terrain that is impossible to access.
But the proximity to the Fraser Valley of the Hope fire and several other nearby active blazes—including one near Harrison Lake—have added to the amount of smoke covering the valley. (Smoke from all these fires tends to collect in valley bottoms.)
Although fires aren’t unheard of in October, the number of them this year is unusual, Drysdale said.
The heat and lack of rain bear the hallmarks of a changing climate, where extreme weather is more common and more severe.
If there’s any good news, it’s the fact that fires don’t spread quite as quickly in mid-fall as they do in July or August: longer and colder nights reduce a fire’s heat and its ability to grow quickly. Earlier this year, fire professional Thomas Martin looked at data from 2021 and found the vast majority of fire growth took place over just a handful of days, when weather was particularly hot and blustery.
October isn’t conducive to a fire spreading extremely quickly. But this year has shown that prolonged dry conditions combined with warm temperatures are more than enough to ruin a good fall day’s air.
The smoke may stick around for a few days. But there’s good news for those most affected: by the end of the week, weather forecasters are predicting rain over several days and temperatures that don’t exceed 11 C.