B.C. asks for help as wildfires rage across province

July 7, 2015

By: Vancouver Sun

The provincial government has put in a request for help from other provinces as firefighters struggle to get B.C.’s wildfires under control.

B.C. has already spent more than $80 million on firefighting efforts so far this year, blowing through a planned $63-million budget, Forests Minister Steve Thomson told reporters Monday morning.

“We’re at a critical stage in our resources, depending on the number of new fire starts. We need to look across the country for support,” he said.

“Requests are in, but those requests need to be balanced off against requests from all other provinces.”

Forest fires have caused huge problems across Western Canada this year — about 1,000 members of the military are now en route to northern Saskatchewan to help fight blazes that have forced 9,000 people out of their homes.

The B.C. government is also reaching out to the forestry industry to ask for help from private contractors, and could ask for assistance from the U.S. and Australia.

So far this year, 866 wildfires burning a total of 222,000 hectares have been identified in the province. On Sunday alone, 27 new wildfires were discovered. In comparison, the provincial Wildfire Management Branch responded to just 358 fires last year.

The Old Sechelt Mine fire on the Sunshine Coast, which has sent clouds of smoke across the south coast, doubled in size from Sunday to Monday and now covers 150 hectares. Meanwhile, an evacuation order that was in effect for about 100 homes near Port Hardy was downgraded to an alert, as crews brought the Tsulquate River fire to 20-per-cent containment.

The wildfire branch does have statutory access to contingency funds to cover the resources necessary to fight wildfires throughout the summer, Thomson said, adding that increasing the wildfire budget in future years could take necessary resources away from other priorities.

“What the public needs to understand is that we will have and will make available all the resources we need to deal with a very challenging situation,” he said.

“The weather forecast is not helpful for us as we look forward — continued hot and dry conditions — so we are asking and really want to reaffirm today for the public to be vigilant in their activities in the outdoors.”

In Delta, Watershed Park and the Delta Nature Reserve were both closed to the public on Monday until further notice because of the extreme fire risk.

A sweeping campfire ban is in effect for the province, and people who violate it could be fined if they are identified, Thomson added. The same goes for smokers seen dropping lit cigarettes onto grass.

Thomson said that this was the earliest start to a wildfire season that he can remember.

He also addressed public concerns that the province isn’t taking advantage of the Martin Mars water bomber, saying that the province is in talks with the plane’s owner about using it as needed. However, he added that the Martin Mars is old, expensive to operate, and only useful under certain conditions.

Members of the Khowutzun Forest Service from Duncan have joined the crew firefighters working on the Old Sechelt Mine fire this morning.

There are 57 people, three helicopters and seven pieces of heavy equipment on site as the fire enters its fifth day, according to BC Wildfire Service spokeswoman Marg Drysdale.

The Old Sechelt Mine fire has doubled in size since Sunday morning and now covers 150 hectares.

“There is a bit of good news, though, and that is the fire is moving north and doesn’t threaten any homes,” said Drysdale.

An evacuation alert for 18 seasonal homes in the Carlson Point area remains in effect. The fire is about two kilometres northeast of Sechelt

“That fire is on extremely steep slopes and there is a high volume of danger trees on that fire,” she said

Yesterday faller Johnny Phare, 61, of Gibsons, lost his life assisting firefighters.

“This is a tragic example of how truly dangerous it is for those battling these wildfires, and should serve as a reminder of just how important it is for us all to do our best to prevent these fires from starting in the first place,” said Constable Harrison Moh, as spokesman for Sunshine Coast RCMP.

Two investigators from Worksafe BC have arrived on the Sunshine Coast and are in the field today, according to spokeswoman Trish Knight Chernecki.

“They are on site and will be looking at cause and prevention issues,” she said.

In Port Hardy on Vancouver Island, Bill Stimpson has been used to more rain than sunshine as a longtime resident.

He never expected to be forced to evacuate his home because of a wildfire in a rainforest.

“The strangest part is that it is happening here of all places. At this time of year, usually our water table is high, we are getting rain. We are the safe zone, we are the place that doesn’t get forest fires,” said Stimpson, who had to leave his home Saturday.

But Port Hardy, like many other regions of British Columbia, is in the midst of a long, hot dry spell.

The tinder-dry forest conditions — combined with an unusual amount of lightning early in the summer season — have resulted in 180 forest fires burning in the province as of Sunday, said B.C. Wildfire Service officials.

There were also fires in the Lower Mainland on Sunday, including one on Burnaby Mountain that was quickly brought under control. In Surrey, the fire department said it had to deal with 60 small fires in just 12 hours Sunday, all caused by people carelessly tossing smouldering cigarettes and other smoking material, often from cars. Similar fires were reported across Metro.

All of the province’s 1,000 forest firefighters, backed up by 400 contract firefighters, are busy, said chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek.

“There is still a possibility we could get some widespread rain that hits the reset button a bit, but certainly if conditions stay the way they are we are going to be in pretty volatile situation,” Skrepnek said Sunday.

There’s no sign of respite from the desert-like weather.

Environment Canada meteorologist Matt MacDonald said the outlook remains unchanged, adding that a massive ridge of high pressure will remain anchored over the Pacific Northwest. “It’s just ongoing dry conditions and warmer than normal.”

Environment Canada has already forecast a warmer than normal summer in Western Canada.

In the Pemberton area, the Boulder Creek fire tripled in size on Saturday and overnight Sunday to about 1,500 hectares.

It’s one of three fires burning in the Pemberton area where steep terrain, dense timber and extreme fire behaviour, such as fires jumping from tree top to tree top, is making it difficult for firefighters to safely battle the blazes, said fire information officer Melissa Klassen.

Firefighters are being helped by helicopters and water buckets but the smoke from the fires presents a danger to them, said Klassen. Crews wanted help from a tanker airplane on Saturday but none was available as they were busy in other parts of the province, she noted.

Evacuation orders in the Pemberton area caused by the Boulder Creek fire affected about 30 to 40 workers at a pair of pumice mines and at Innergex’s run-of-the-river hydroelectric power project under construction on Boulder Creek, said Ryan Wainwright, emergency program manager with the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District.

In Port Hardy, the fire is smaller than other major blazes in the province at about 17 hectares in total — with a one-hectare spot fire between two residential neighbourhoods. The spot fire reached within 400 metres of homes.

While winds there have died down, and fire activity is at ground level, it was the hottest day all week on Sunday, noted B.C. fire information officer Mike McCully.

“This is still a very active and dangerous wildfire,” he said.

About 45 firefighters were working on the fire Sunday, backed up with four helicopters dropping water.

Stimpson, the Port Hardy resident, said it seemed as if the helicopters were making return trips about every three minutes.

Stimpson said when the blaze first blew up (believed to be human caused, according to B.C. fire officials), the wind was powerful, maybe gusting at 50 to 60 kilometres per hour, blowing right at his neighbourhood. “The ash was falling and the smoke blotted out the sun,” he said.

Before he was ordered to evacuate, the firefighting action was so close that some fire retardant dropped by a plane landed on Stimpson’s house and car, he said.

An evacuation order was rescinded late Sunday for 28 residences east of Kelowna near the Huckleberry Fire.

And a local state of emergency was declared Thursday in the northeastern community of Fort Nelson because of a wildfire burning near an oil and gas plant.

By: Vancouver Sun

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