A fire burning just five kilometres from Telegraph Creek on Aug. 8. (BC Wildfire Service)

B.C. declares state of emergency as more than 560 wildfires rage

This is only the fourth state of emergency ever issued during a fire season

The province declared a state of emergency on Wednesday morning, citing the more than 500 wildfires burning across B.C. as of Aug. 14.

The more than 560 wildfires have sparked 29 evacuation orders affecting more than 3,000 people, and 48 evacuation alerts affecting almost 19,000 people.

Including this year, there have been four total states of emergency issued due to wildfires: 1996, 2003, 2017 and 2018.

Since, BC Wildfire chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek said that $214 million has been spent to fight 1,821 fires that have burned up 381,000 hectares of B.C. forests.

That’s $118 million less than this time last year, Skrepnek noted.

More than 3,372 firefighters are working around B.C., including 436 personnel from other provinces, Parks Canada, Australia, Mexico and New Zealand.

The fires show no signs of abating, the province noted, as the forecast calls for hot and dry weather, as well as lightning, for much of B.C.

On Monday, federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Ottawa would send 200 Canadian Forces troops to help fight wildfires in B.C.

Although Skrepnek said there weren’t currently plans on how exactly to deploy the troops, he said they would likely be used in a similar fashion to last year.

“We’re certainly not sending them out to fires that are starting, they’re not going to be frontline first responder firefighters,” said Skrepnek.

“We’re going to utilize them more so in the mop-up of fires. After it’s been largely contained, we get them on the ground to do a lot of the grunt work.”

BC Wildfires 2018: Province calls for federal aid

The state of emergency will last for 14 days, at which time it can be renewed. It gives authorities extra powers to help deal with the crisis.

“Public safety is always our first priority and, as wildfire activity is expected to increase, this is a progressive step in our wildfire response to make sure British Columbia has access to any and all resources necessary,” said B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth in a release.

“Taking this step will further ensure we can protect the public, property and infrastructure, and assist with firefighting efforts.”

However, speaking to reporters later, Donaldson said there were no specific plans to set up a new wildfire assistance fund.

Instead he pointed to already existing provincial programs.

“In terms of the longer term issue of what financial assistance is available, that will depend in part on, one the wildfires are over, we’re able to get sense of the damage that has taken place,” said Donaldson.

However, Donaldson was firm that whatever money needs to be spent to fight wildfires will be spent.

“We spend what’s required to keep people safe and keep fires under controls,” he said.

That’s regardless of what kind of fire season we have.”

Although both 2017 and 2018 have been intense years with states of emergency issued, Skrepnek said they were “very different fire seasons.”

Last year, the province issued a 10-week state of emergency on July 7.

In 2017, much of the fires that burned up more than a million hectares of land started in early July, and most evacuees were back to their homes by this time.

Despite some forecast rain bringing “a glimmer of hope” to the southeastern parts of the province, Skrepnek said there’s no sign of the “major rain event” fire crews need to get a grip on major wildfires.

“Rain. We need rain,” he said.

READ MORE: Heavy smoke settles into the Okanagan as wildfires continue to burn

READ MORE: Wildfire smoke blankets BC and Alberta, prompting air quality advisories

Forests Minister Doug Donaldson rebuffed concerns that the province hadn’t begun wildfire preparations early enough.

Citing the independent review of 2017’s floods and fires completed in the spring, Donaldson said the province brought in fire crews and aircraft onto fire scenes earlier.

“We increased our communication with important stakeholders early on in the fire season,” Donaldson said.

“One of the recommendations we are going to be taking action on… more burning around communities, more fuel management around communities.”

Although Donaldson acknowledged that controlled burns often make nearby communities nervous, he emphasized the safety and caution of the operations.

“When we do burn during a fire season, it’s under expert authority,” said Donaldson.

“We did already increase the number of controlled burns this spring… [prescribed burns] are an incredible tool to manage fuel buildup.”

“Forest fires are a natural part of the ecosystem.” Prescribed burns are “an incredible tool to manage fuel buildup.”

Last August, a controlled burn near Clinton went wrong after strong winds caused the fire to jump Highway 97 and threaten nearby ranches and home.


@katslepian

katya.slepian@bpdigital.ca

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