Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Strange, with a chance of extreme

After a wacky year in weather, 2013 could be another

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They saw fire and they saw freezing rain -- but Vita residents never want to see either again.

Certainly not within three days of each other.

When looking at the weather and how it affected communities in 2012, it would be hard to find a place that took a bigger hit than Vita, located about 100 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg.

The relentless summer heat stretched into the fall, sparking a series of wildfires across southern Manitoba that forced an emergency evacuation in Vita. A devastating fire ripped through the tiny town, destroying four homes and acres of land in the process.

Less than 72 hours later, the region was buried in a winter storm that blanketed the town in more than 30 centimetres of snow. It helped knock down the last of the smouldering brush in the region, but it also resulted in road closures and power outages, leaving 6,000 people in the dark.

"There's a lot of weird and wacky weather but that one was almost biblical," said David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada. "Who would have thought you could have a combination of spring and summer fires and freezing rain and snow all within the matter of a few days."

RM of Stuartburn deputy reeve Ed Penner said at the time it was a week from hell "probably twice over."

Christine Friesen, a Stuartburn councillor, was part of the evacuation team when the fires began to spread. Just days later, she went door to door when the winter storm knocked out hydro and telephone lines.

"It went from one extreme to the next," she recalled this week. "Super dry and windy, and then all of a sudden you're hit with cold and snow."

Phillips said part of what made the Vita story unique was its timing.

"The fact that it happened around Thanksgiving, you weren't sure if people were thankful or if it was just one misery followed by some more misery," he said.

According to Friesen, it was mostly the former.

"A lot of people were hoping for something to happen because the wind was shifting and the fire would have just kept going," she recalled. "Most of the people were prepared and a lot of them were thankful that it snowed."

It wasn't the cold that had people talking in 2012 in Manitoba.

It was the heat.

According to Environment Canada, the city set a record for its warmest 12-month period between August 2011 and July 2012.

The average temperature was 6 C, eclipsing the 1877 mark of 5.6 C.

Phillips said while the unprecedented temperatures didn't crack the national weather agency's Top 10 weather stories of 2012, it was an important one in its own right.

"As a regional highlight, the warmest year on record is pretty significant," he said.

It was a year that began, almost exactly a year ago, with the winter that never was.

Before Manitobans even had a chance to haul their snow tires out of storage, spring had arrived. And it brought with it record-setting temperatures.

According to Phillips, the month of March had four days above 20 C -- more than any of the Marches over the past 140 years combined.

On March 19, the mercury soared to 20.9 C.

"That was dramatic," Phillips said. "There were people drinking beer on outdoor patios in muscle shirts and tank tops instead of parkas and tuques."

On July 25, in the midst of what Phillips referred to as the "year of the urban flood," the town of Steinbach was slapped with a storm that dumped an accumulated 110 millimetres of rain in less than an hour.

While precipitation levels tapered off, however, the mercury levels did not. At the peak of the seemingly endless summer heatwave, temperatures averaged 22.3 C.

According to Phillips, the forecast for 2013 is more of the same: strange, with a chance of extreme.

"If there's one thing we know it's that the weather in this country will never be boring," Phillips said.

"Nature attacks us from every direction."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2012 A11

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