Firefighters warily watch the forecast as wet weather calms B.C. wildfires

·3 min read
Motorcyclists stopped at a gas station watch as a pyrocumulus cloud, also known as a fire cloud, produced by the Lytton Creek wildfire rises into the sky from the fire burning in the mountains above Lytton, B.C., on Sunday.  (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck - image credit)
Motorcyclists stopped at a gas station watch as a pyrocumulus cloud, also known as a fire cloud, produced by the Lytton Creek wildfire rises into the sky from the fire burning in the mountains above Lytton, B.C., on Sunday. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck - image credit)

Cool, rainy weather has helped crews make some progress fighting wildfires throughout B.C.'s southern Interior, but officials say even a short stretch of dry weather could cause the situation to deteriorate again.

B.C. Wildfire Service information officer Erika Berg said several days of precipitation have calmed fire activity in some of the hardest hit parts of the province.

"The fires are still very large and notable fires, but the intensity with which they're burning and the unpredictability is lessened somewhat because of the conditions," she told CBC News on Wednesday.

At the moment, there's nothing in the forecast that's causing serious concern for firefighters, but Berg noted that it's only possible to make predictions in the short term.

"The fuels started out this season being very dry. We tend to rely on those June rains and we received far from enough, and so those really deep fuels are still very susceptible to ignition," she said.

"If we do see some drying periods, even if it's not too hot or even cool, windy days can result in fire behaviour increasing."

Berg noted that between Tuesday and Wednesday, 12 new fires were reported, the majority of which were sparked by lightning. In part because of damper conditions on the ground, none of those fires are currently causing concern.

Environment Canada is calling for possible thundershowers over parts of the southern Interior Thursday, with rain and much cooler temperatures expected over most of the region by the weekend, but the wildfire service says a long period of drenching rain is needed.

B.C. Wildfire Service/Twitter
B.C. Wildfire Service/Twitter

For now, the B.C. Wildfire Service lists the current wildfire danger as low across most of the Kamloops Fire Centre, where at least six major fires have destroyed homes in several communities.

The reprieve means some evacuation orders on some of the blazes, including the damaging White Rock Lake wildfire, have been partially downgraded to alerts and residents in certain areas are allowed to return home.

Others, including the more than 70 who lost homes Sunday night as the White Rock Lake blaze reached the northwest shore of Okanagan Lake, are still waiting to get a good look at what remains of their properties.

The White Rock Lake fire is now estimated at 811 square kilometres in size, according to the Regional District of North Okanagan. A total of 263 wildland firefighters, 143 structural protection workers, 16 helicopters, 17 tree fallers and 57 pieces of heavy equipment have been assigned to work on the blaze.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Wildfires now a campaign issue

The Forests Ministry says nearly 270 wildfires are burning in all corners of the province and almost 8,500 square kilometres of land has been charred since the start of the fire season, an estimated increase of nearly 400 square kilometres in just 24 hours.

Meanwhile, B.C.'s wildfire situation has become a talking point in the federal election campaign.

In a letter to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau on Wednesday, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole echoed criticism from some local officials that the election call was unnecessary at a time when fires were burning across the province, and called for more federal support of firefighting efforts.

Trudeau fired back at O'Toole at an event in Vancouver, saying the Conservatives were incapable of admitting that human-caused climate change is real, and announcing plans to purchase more water bombers and other firefighting equipment.

We're answering your questions about climate change and the federal election. Send yours to ask@cbc.ca, and we'll answer as many as we can leading up to election day.

Anyone placed under an evacuation order should leave the area immediately.

Evacuation centres have been set up throughout the province to assist anyone evacuating from a community under threat from a wildfire.

To find the centre closest to you, visit the Emergency Management B.C. website.

Evacuees are encouraged to register with Emergency Support Services online, whether or not they access services at an evacuation centre.

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