70 new wildfires, 12K lightning strikes in 24-hour period in B.C.; forecast suggests little relief in near future

There were dozens of new wildfires confirmed in British Columbia Thursday, and officials don't expect much relief in the days to come.

The B.C. Wildfire Service's Cliff Chapman said in a teleconference Friday that he knew of 70 new fires sparked on Canada Day alone. One factor is the roughly 12,000 lightning strikes reported in the province that day, many of which were near communities including Kamloops.

Overnight, evacuation orders were issued then rescinded for some neighbourhoods in the Interior city as flames from fires in the area creeped closer to homes. 

The BCWS said there were 136 active wildfires across B.C. as of Friday afternoon, the majority of which are in the southeast Interior, Cariboo and Prince George areas.

None of the 70 fires sparked Thursday were larger than 100 hectares, or one square kilometre, as of Friday's update, Chapman said.

He said an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people are working to put out the fires.

Pader Brach, executive director of regional operations for Emergency Management BC, said an estimated 1,360 homes were under evacuation order as of Friday afternoon, and another 950 homes are under alerts, meaning residents have been advised to be ready to leave at short notice.

The BCWS said more fires are expected, meaning more evacuations are possible. Chapman said there would likely be around 70 Friday, due to tinder-dry conditions in the area and the potential for more lightning.

The service said there will be significant fire activity across the province in the next 12 to 24 hours. Forests in B.C. are extremely dry from a heat wave that brought temperatures into the 40s to much of the area impacted by fires, and while things have cooled a bit along the West Coast, highs in the 30s are still being recorded inland.

Over the next seven days, the service warned, the forecast includes the continuation of above-seasonal temperatures, plus an increase in winds that may fan the fires.

Approximately 79,000 hectares (790 square kilometres) of B.C. has burned already this wildfire season, and Chapman estimates that area will be closer to 100,000 hectares through the weekend.

It's high, he said – above the province's 10-year average. Comparing this season to 2017's, when B.C. was in a state of emergency for 10 weeks as firefighters battled wildfires across the province, Champan said this year's is about three weeks "ahead of schedule."

But when asked what this means for the weeks and months to come, he said it will depend on the weather. That being said, Chapman said it looks like it may be a long season of fighting wildfires.

The BCWS said it's used a cross-country agreement to secure more resources, expected to arrive Sunday, and has requested more help for next week.

A representative of the B.C. RCMP expressed Mounties' condolences to those impacted by the fires.

Staff Sgt. Janelle Shoihet said officers will perform a grid search of the Lytton area, a village particularly hard hit, as soon as it is safe to do so.

An estimated 90 per cent of the village has been destroyed by a fire that is not associated with a wildfire burning nearby. The cause of the Lytton fire has not yet been confirmed.

For now, she said, it's not safe to get into the area as there are "numerous hazards that remain in place," but Shoihet said this was being assessed on an hourly basis.

B.C.'s chief coroner also addressed the Lytton fire, saying she's aware there are concerns about fatalities. Lisa Lapointe had a similar message as Shoihet, saying a team is standing by and will enter as soon as possible. 

At that time, any fatalities will be confirmed. As of Friday at 1:30 p.m., there were reports of two deaths in the village.

Asked about concerns about the spread of COVID-19 at evacuation centres set up to help evacuees of Lytton and other fires, the province's top doctor said the disease isn't top of mind.

"But really, the primary concern is making sure people have a safe place to stay, and thankfully we're in a place where the rates of transmission in our communities… are low enough that that's not the primary concern," Dr. Bonnie Henry said.

That being said, if anyone has concerns, public health officials will make sure they can get tested.