British Columbia Battles Nearly 300 Wildfires at Once. Here’s How.
Swathes of British Columbia are shrouded in opaque clouds of swirling smoke from the hundreds of wildfires raging in the interior of the province.
With more fires this season than ever since 2018, British Columbia is scorching hot, trapped in a record-breaking heat wave triggered in part by climate change.
In June, the relentless wildfire season hit the small town of Lytton, after three consecutive days of extreme heat that broke national temperature records, reaching 121 degrees Fahrenheit (roughly 49 degrees Celsius). Two people died, the only victims of the wildfire season in the province, which mainly affects sparsely populated areas.
Since April, more than 1.6 million acres have burned, according to data released by the province this week. This is about 80 percent more than one would normally have expected at this time during the wildfire season, based on the 10-year average for the province.
At least 3,100 firefighters and staff are working to put out the flames. Powerful firefighting tankers roar, with fleets that include helicopters equipped with a 2,650 gallon tank that can be filled in under a minute.
The flames forced the evacuation of thousands of homes – but some residents refused to leave, prompting the government to avoid complacency.
Where are the forest fires?
The majority of the nearly 260 wildfires still on are in the interior region, closer to the southeastern border of British Columbia with the province of Alberta, and miles from the coast of the Peaceful.
A massive fire burned more than 139,600 acres and was fueled Tuesday by gusty winds and dry conditions in White Rock Lake, about 21 miles northwest of a larger town, Vernon. It is one of more than 30 forest fires considered a threat to public safety according to the province’s forest fire classification system. The others are considered less threatening.
Some say government officials are not doing enough.
In Monte Lake, a town close to one of the fires classified as the most dangerous, flames have been burning since July 13 and residents have criticized the province for what they called a slow response.
Rick Manwaring, deputy minister of the BC Ministry of Forests and Natural Resources, championed the government’s efforts. Two crews and a helicopter with a 1,000-liter bucket of water immediately responded to the blaze, he said at a press conference on Tuesday.
“And that has been the norm for us this unusual fire season,” Mr. Manwaring said.
Teams worked with local ranchers and residents to build barriers to protect property, he said.
A network of nearly 200 helicopters, mass water distribution systems and other heavy machinery was dispatched to the various sites to help extinguish the flames.
And more than 150 out-of-province firefighters, including 100 from Mexico who arrived in late July, are helping thousands of local firefighters and Canadian Armed Forces personnel.
Extreme weather conditions
But countries that would normally be ready to help Canada, including the United States, New Zealand and Australia, have been unable to provide support this year because they are battling the fires of forest on their own soil. Travel restrictions during the pandemic have also complicated matters.
How are the evacuations going?
As of Tuesday, approximately 5,400 properties were subject to an evacuation order. Another 31,000 are on alert for evacuation, meaning that authorities are asking residents to prepare take-out bags containing essential items.
They were also advised to have an evacuation plan for pets and livestock, and a full tank of gasoline in the car in case they were asked to flee their home at short notice.
Authorities urged residents to immediately obey evacuation orders. Failure to do so, they warned, could endanger the lives of firefighters if escape routes were blocked by flames.
“I know people are scared and frustrated,” said Katrine Conroy, Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources and Rural Development. “You are simply putting your life and the lives of others in danger, and we cannot ask the firefighters to risk their lives and face a wall of flames because someone made the reckless decision not to evacuate.”
Ryan Reynolds, postdoctoral researcher in household and evacuation preparedness at the University of British Columbia, said wildfires presented a complex challenge for emergency planners. Among the biggest problems is their unpredictability: In the blink of an eye, the flames can change direction and suddenly threaten escape routes.
The province has 14 reception centers open to support evacuees and group accommodation facilities.
Some evacuation orders have been reduced, allowing businesses like the Monte Creek Winery, previously evacuated due to the White Rock Lake fire, to reopen.
“It seems like a normal thing for us now,” said Ashley Demedeiros, marketing manager for the winery.
Businesses, Ms. Demedeiros said, have long learned that people need to have a forest fire plan.
“It’s no longer an exercise,” she says.
What causes fires?
Over the past decade in British Columbia, an average of 58 percent of forest fires have been caused by lightning strikes and 42 percent by humans. But that changed a bit in 2018 – a record 3.3 million acres burned – when 70% of fires were attributed to lightning, according to government data.
Of the active forest fires currently unfolding, more than 180 have been started by natural causes, including lightning, and just over a dozen by human activity, according to the government.
What was the impact on health?
The number of casualties was low, partly because of evacuation orders and partly because of the distance between the fires and population centers.
But Canada’s environmental agency has warned that air quality has deteriorated in areas like the Okanagan Valley and Kamloops because of the smoke.
This can lead to chronic diseases, some of which are life-shortening, said Michael Brauer, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies the effects of air pollution on human health.
Warmer weather, unfortunately.
Temperatures in the interior region of British Columbia are expected to increase from Thursday to Saturday. Some forecasts call for temperatures of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, according to weather alerts from Environment and Climate Change Canada, a government agency.
This makes it even more difficult to fight fires already in progress.
When the thermometer rises, helicopter engines can overheat and other machines can break down. This happened during the province’s record heat wave in June.
#British #Columbia #Battles #Wildfires #Heres