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VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Two Canadian provinces are worried about an early start to this year's forest fire season because of below-normal winter snowfall and dry spring conditions.
British Columbia has put fire-fighting aircraft on 48-hour alert, something they do not normally do until May, and other crews may also be put on early standby, Forest Minister Pat Bell said on Monday.
"I am very concerned about where we are at right now ... As everyone across this province knows, we have had record-low snowfalls (and) very early season drying trends," Bell told reporters.
The low snow pack conditions in Western Canada are blamed on the El Nino weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean that brought unseasonably mild weather to the Pacific Coast and caused havoc with the Vancouver Olympics.
"While the high-elevation snowpack continues to be at an acceptable level, the middle and low-elevation snow packs are very low, and that's an issue for us that cannot be mitigated," Bell said.
The snow pack is low in all of British Columbia's major river basins, ranging from 65 percent of normal in the East Kootenay basin to 95 percent in the North Thompson, according to provincial reports.
Ontario expects to release information later this week on expectations for the upcoming fire season, but preliminary data indicates it could get under way earlier than it has in the past two years, an official said.
"Snowfall has been well below normal," said Art Osborne, a fire information officer with Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources.
It is difficult to give a long-term predictions of forest fire activity in Ontario, because any spring rains it receives could help mitigate the lack of winter snow, Osborne said.
British Columbia produces about half of Canada's softwood exports to the United States, and is an increasing supplier to China. Ontario is the country's third largest lumber producing province.
Environment Canada has predicted below normal precipitation for most of Canada this spring.
Alberta expects to release its forest-fire projections later this week. Quebec has not yet released its forecast.
Reporting Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson