'We're still well above average': B.C. wildfire season nearly a month ahead of average conditions

A wildfire burning out of control near Sun Peaks Resort has prompted an evacuation order for 132 properties. This is just one of the latest fires to force British Columbians out of their homes this summer.

“In comparison to what we consider a regular wildfire year, we’re still well above average,” said Taylor Coleman, fire information officer with the BC Wildfire Service.

“We’re actually about three to four weeks ahead of average for conditions and fire behaviour that we’re seeing. It’s more typical of what we’re seeing at the end of July or August.”

What’s largely to blame is the lack of rain seen in the spring and early summer, explained Coleman.

“In the Cariboo and the Okanagan, there was a significant drought this spring; we received below-average levels of precipitation and for wildfire season we really depend on the June rain cycle,” she said. “And we just didn’t see that this year.”

There were 301 wildfires burning across the province as of 2 p.m. Sunday, and more than 950 have sparked since April 1, according to the BC Wildfire Service dashboard.

“A lot of us are feeling worried all the time,” said Sonia Furstenau, the BC Green Party leader. “One of the things that climate change is going to increasingly create is uncertainty and unpredictably.”

She said it’s time for the government to play a significant role in being proactive in responding to the impacts of climate change.

“You can look to almost any part of the province right now and see the impacts that we’ve had because of this heat wave,” said Furstenau. “Climate change was a sort of peripheral afterthought in the budget, as was inequality. And these are the two things, from my point of view, our government need to be focused on entirely at this point.”

Furstenau said the approach to B.C.’s forests needs to change in order to make prevention a priority, and the government needs to stop measuring the forests in timber values.

“Because of that, decisions have been made decade over decade on how to increase those timber values, and one of those ongoing decisions of management has been to create these monocultures, which are themselves incredibly prone to both pests and fires,” she said.

“We continue to have management of the land base where broad-leaf deciduous trees – which are actually good for helping to prevent and slow down wildfires – are removed from the land base because they don’t contribute to that timber value measurement.”

Furstenau said if climate change and inequality are not a priority in the provincial budget, then what happened during the heat wave and with these wildfires will repeat.

Climate change experts also point to a need for closer working relationships between the province and Ottawa with both local governments and First Nations.

“Local governments are on the front lines, so local governments have actually been more proactive than the provincial and federal governments,” said Deborah Harford, executive director of the adaptation to climate change team at SFU.

“They are the ones that get flooded out, they are the ones that get burnt down.”

She said it’s nearly impossible to plan for emergencies that are unimaginable, but the risks are known.

“It all points to things like needing to add capacity to local governments and especially needing to help vulnerable people,” said Harford.

The cause of the deadly Lytton fire that killed two community members and burned the village to the ground is still under investigation, though it is believed to be human-caused.

Ken Gillis, the chair of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District Board, wants to see action taken to avoid this ever happening again.

“We have to restrict access to the backcountry,” he said. “I think there's far too many of these fires (that) are human-caused, and they're caused by campfires, by carelessness.”

While there is a provincial campfire ban in place, Gillis said it “doesn't necessarily mean that people won't go ahead and light them.”

“I think one of the things we'll have to do, whether we'd like to or not, is ban access to the backcountry areas.”

The federal Ministry of Transportation has issued a new order for both the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways. It says they must ensure a 60-minute response time for any fire detected along rail lines running through Lytton. The goal is to put it out or control it and get help from the local fire service if necessary, before it spreads.

The order also requires at least 10 fire-detection patrols every 24 hours along tracks running through communities, conductors to be responsible for spotting and reporting fires, and slower train speeds when the danger rating is “extreme” anywhere across the country.

The new order is in effect until Oct. 31.