What is already the third-worst fire season in B.C. history could end up becoming the worst by one measure.
“What I would be willing to say is that I do think there is a potential that we will burn the most hectares ever recorded in B.C.’s history this year, given that we are already over a million and we haven’t hit our core fire season, or are just entering into our core fire season now,” Cliff Chapman, director of wildfire operations with BC Wildfire Service, said.
He made this observation Wednesday (July 5). BC Wildfire Service’s lead forecaster Matt MacDonald and Pader Brach, executive director, provincial and regional operations with the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness joined him to update the public about the wildfire season, which has already seen at least 566 wildfires since April 1.
Wildfires, most of them in the northeastern corner of the province, have already burnt one million hectares, Chapman said.
Chapman also pointed out that the current wildfire season has already seen “significant” evacuation alerts and orders in rural areas, but also in more populated communities in northern B.C.
While these effects might not have been on the scale of previous wildfire seasons, the public has already experienced significant impacts, Chapman said.
So have crews, who Chapman said have not had much of a break.
“There have been days with rain, but it’s not nearly enough,” Chapman said.
Worse, not much more appears on the way. MacDonald said available data points to the potential for above normal temperatures paired with drier than normal conditions through the latter half of July into August.
“Even if we see five to 10 millimeters over the coming weeks, it is not going to be enough to alleviate the stress we have in our forests,” MacDonald said.
These conditions appear against the backdrop of another looming threat: lightning strikes.
“We are expecting a significant number of lightning strikes here in the coming days across B.C.,” MacDonald said.
These climatic conditions mean more wildfires in the more populated parts of the province.
Kelowna offered a possible preview of that future over the Canada Day long weekend when a human-caused fire burnt parts of Knox Mountain in that city’s urban core.
MacDonald said that fire was a representative example of how fire-prone forests are right now, adding that high temperatures and breezy conditions contributed to its aggressive behaviour.
“Looking forward, typically lightning strikes favour ridge tops, so outside of communities in the higher elevations,” MacDonald said. “But those fires can grow downhill and we do also get lightning strikes at valley bottoms and mid-elevation. So it’s impossible to say exactly where and when those lightning strikes are going to occur and materialize, but the pattern is definitely conducive here in the next couple of days. We got a lot of instability across the province right now.”
Ultimately, the future direction of this wildfire season will heavily depend on the effects of lightning, Chapman said, in repeating previous appeals that British Columbians report smoke whenever they see it. The more crews can track fires with the help of the public, they more quickly they can respond, he said.
He also stressed the importance of fire prohibitions. While crews cannot prevent lightning caused fires, human-caused fires draw away resources, he said while explaining pending plans to enhance prohibitions.
Kamloops and the Coastal fire centres are set to re-instate the campfire bans on Friday. Campfires will be prohibited throughout the two regions, except for the Haida Gwaii Forest District in the Coastal region.
Elsewhere, a campfire ban is in effect in the Prince George Fire Centre. It’s the largest fire centre in B.C. and has seen the most wildfires so far this year.
Partial bans are in effect in certain parts of the Northwest Fire Centre, while campfires are allowed in the Southeast and Cariboo regions.
Relief, however, is on the way in the form of additional crews. Chapman said B.C. is set to get some international help to fight the fires, with 60 personnel coming from the United States and 100 coming from Mexico. They will deploy exclusively in the Prince George Fire Centre for now, Chapman said.
“Obviously, we need to be adaptable,” he said.
A recent report noted that wildfires threaten almost half of all public lands in B.C., and the direct cost of suppressing them averages $1 billion annually in Western Canada, with costs trending upward.