The BC Wildfire Service is monitoring the Little Blue River wildfire, located west of Highway 37 approximately 40 kilometres south of the Yukon border. The fire saw increased growth on July 10, and is currently estimated at 30,000 hectares; an evacuation order for nearby residents is in place. (Photo credit: BC Wildfire Service)

1 million hectares burned in B.C. as wildfire season just getting started

Province already having its third worst fire season on record as July set to get drier and hotter

What is already the third-worst fire season in B.C. history could end up becoming the worst, according to at least 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 [hectares burned] 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 on July 5, during an update on this year’s wildfire season, which has already seen nearly 600 wildfires since April 1.

On July 10 the province declared a state of emergency for the unincorporated Stikine region in response to the ongoing wildfire situation, and put an evacuation order in place for specific areas in the region affected by the Little Blue River wildfire.

As of July 10 there were 311 active wildfires burning in the province. During the preceding weekend, significant amounts of dry lightning affected nearly all regions of the province, starting 115 wildfires. Twelve evacuation orders affecting approximately 156 people were in place, in addition to 12 evacuation alerts affecting 629 people in the northwest, northeast, and Cariboo regions.

Wildfires, most of them in the northeastern corner of the province, have already burnt one million hectares. “There have been days with rain, but it’s not nearly enough,” Chapman said.

Worse, not much more appears on the way. Matt MacDonald, the BC Wildfire Service’s lead forecaster, said on July 5 that 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.

The past year also saw lower levels of rain and other precipitation, causing drought conditions to continue to worsen in B.C. The majority of the province’s water basins are now at Level 4 drought levels, meaning that adverse impacts to socio-economic or ecosystem values are likely.

The province continues to urge residents to conserve water wherever possible. If conservation measures do not achieve sufficient results and drought conditions worsen, temporary protection orders under the Water Sustainability Act may be issued to water licensees to support drinking water for communities and avoid significant or irreversible harm to aquatic ecosystems. Provincial staff are monitoring the situation and working to balance water use with environmental flow needs.

These climatic conditions mean the possibility of more wildfires in 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.

Chapman repeated previous appeals for British Columbians to 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 noted.

He also stressed the importance of fire prohibitions. While crews cannot prevent lightning-caused fires, human-caused fires draw away resources.

Relief 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 the time being.

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.

With files from Barbara Roden

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