Wildfires Burn across British Columbia

Cameron Soltys -
Posted on: July 15, 2017

As of Wednesday, July 12, the province of British Columbia (B.C.) has been dealing with over 200 wildfires, 21 of which are of a notable size. The fires are raging across large portions of the province, causing evacuations, poor visibility, and bad air quality.

A large number of the fires started early in the month, between July 8 and 9. That weekend saw a large number of dry lightning storms, where lightning strikes were not associated with a subsequent downpour that could suppress any nascent wildfires. Unfortunately, the preceding weeks had consisted of hot weather—up to 30°C—and little rain. As a result, most of the southern two-thirds of the province were classified as being at “high” or “extreme” risk of fire. The situation was worsened by high winds, which fanned flames and caused them to spread aggressively.

The wildfires are limited mostly into the interior of the province, fortunately away from coastal population centers such as Vancouver. The provincial government, with its 2000 local fire fighters and expected 350 out-of-province reinforcements, has been prioritizing preserving infrastructure, communities, and particularly the evacuation-essential highways. Unfortunately, conditions are expected to remain poor for fire-fighting, with no rain forecast and the possibility of more dry lightning.

Many thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes (16 000 as of July 12), and a state of emergency has been declared throughout the province. Some communities that have been accepting evacuees are at capacity: the residents of 100 Mile House, for instance, were evacuated many hours north to Prince George, instead of two hours south to Kamloops. There have also been reports of disorganization in the government and Red Cross response to the crisis, with Red Cross manager Melissa Fougere admitting to being “overwhelmed.” Nevertheless, most people seem to be obeying evacuation orders and retreating safely.

Surprisingly, this may not be a record-setting British Columbia fire season, since the early fire season was relatively tame. Thus far, 552 fires have burned 24 000 hectares. This is much less severe than 2015, which saw over 1800 fires and 300 000 hectares burned. The comparison to 2003, a notably terrible year for fire, shows the current situation could be much more dire.

2003 was the hottest, driest year on record for B.C. That year saw 2500 wildfires. In particular, there were a large number of “interface fires,” where the fire approached a boundary between woodland and urban areas. As a result of these fires, 45 000 people had to be evacuated and three firefighters lost their lives. Like with this year, the fires were restricted primarily to the interior.

In the aftermath of 2003, the B.C. government commissioned a report on the fire season. This report suggested, among other things, improvements in forestry management and organization. These recommendations have been, at least in part, obeyed. For instance, in 2009 the Globe and Mail found that the province had identified 685 000 hectares of interface forest that high-risk due to a buildup of fuel (dead vegetation and overgrowth). Around 35 000 hectares had been cleaned up to reduce that risk.

The organization of wildfire response has also been improved. After the 2003 fire season, an inventory of available firefighting equipment has been established, allowing planners and organizers easier understanding of the resources at their disposal. Improvements have also occurred in the context of the disastrous Fort McMurray wildfires last year in Alberta. The lessons learned from that firefighting effort has led to centralizing of the B.C. effort; the provincial government has taken responsibility for managing the situation, with the Canadian federal government only providing assistance.

While the fires this year may not constitute an extraordinary event, they are nevertheless serious and will take a large amount of time and capital to contain and eliminate. Hopefully the efforts will be able to continue without casualties. Over the long term, continuing improvements in fire management, including practices like controlled burns or strategically allowing fires to burn, will hopefully be able to reduce the severity of fires in the future.