British Columbia wildfire season now second worst in province's history

British Columbia wildfire season now second worst in province's history

VICTORIA — A year after the single worst season for wildfires in British Columbia's history, government statistics indicate the 2018 wildfire season has already reached the second-worst mark, burning more than 9,450 square kilometres of land so far.

That should prompt a longer look and more research into the trend, which according to the province's chief fire information officer has seen more than 21,000 square kilometres of land burned over the past two years.

Speaking from the Provincial Wildfire Co-ordination Centre in Kamloops, B.C., Kevin Skrepnek explained how the two seasons have been markedly different.

He said in 2017, the most troublesome fires all started during a three-day period in early July, burning for months and merging with other fires. While fires merging is not uncommon, Skrepnek said the sheer volume of blazes ignited in those three days kept fire crews busy for months.

"We had hundreds of fires start in that period. And the major incidents that turned into the massive fires — the 100,000-hectare-plus fires that basically burned until the fall — were in that period."

In contrast, 2018 has seen almost 600 more fires than 2017, but most have been more manageable due to heavy spring rains that caused flooding across much of southern B.C. and gave firefighters a leg up.

"We had a wetter June this year which has definitely, definitely been a saving grace for us," Skrepnek said.

The BC Wildfire Service says wildfires burned more than 12,000 square kilometres last year, and roughly 65,000 people were displaced or evacuated.

More than 300 structures were destroyed by wildfires in 2017. The number so far this year is roughly 140, although Skrepnek noted that more than half of those have been outbuildings, and not necessarily residences or homes.

"It's looking like in the neighbourhood of over 50 homes destroyed," he said.

Susan Williams of Emergency Management BC said it's too early to tell exactly how many people have been displaced from their homes, but she pointed out that between May 24 and Aug. 26, 5,396 people registered for emergency social services.

"Not everybody registers, and this includes people who evacuated even if they were under alert, so it takes a while to figure out the other numbers," said Williams from the agency's headquarters near Victoria.

Data shows the province spent more than $568 million on firefighting efforts last year, and while the figures for 2018 are still coming together, Skrepnek estimates the bill will be higher than $300 million.

"We'll definitely be one of the most expensive on record this year."

Skrepnek said approximately 4,500 people are currently working under the BC Wildfire Service province-wide, and that his organization is looking at various ways to increase resources.

Firefighters contracted from forestry and firefighting companies are always a key component of provincial fire suppression efforts, but this year Skrepnek said they added a first-ever pool of roughly 80 "Type 2" firefighters working directly for the BC Wildfire Service.

"These are contract firefighters, but we train them, and they have to meet a higher fitness standard than other contractors."

The BC Wildfire Service says the Northwest Fire Centre based in Smithers, B.C., has borne the brunt of the work this season, battling fires that have burned roughly 5,400 square kilometres.

That's nearly five times more than the second-highest region, the Prince George Fire Centre, 370 kilometres southeast of Smithers.

Before 2017, the worst year for wildfires in B.C. history was 1958, which now ranks third on the list.

— By Spencer Harwood in Vancouver

The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had incorrect statistics for the amount of land burned by wildfires in 2017 and 2018.