Recent rainfall has allowed for a “slight reset” of the wildfire fight in northern British Columbia but “doesn’t erase all the challenges” of this year’s historic fire season, Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma said Thursday (July 27).
“While the rain did give our hardworking firefighters a chance to take a deep breath, the wildfire and drought situation remains largely unchanged due to the drought conditions we have been seeing since last summer,” she told a news conference on Thursday.
The wildfire danger rating has dropped to moderate or low in all but the southeastern corner of the province, however Ma warned that the recent rain and cooler weather don’t ease severe drought conditions across B.C.
Notably, the Coastal Fire Centre has received the equivalent of nearly a month’s worth of rain over the last 72 hours, according to a tweet Thursday. The Coastal Fire Centre includes Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland and halfway up B.C.’s west coast and Haida Gwaii.
Over the last 72 hours, the Coastal Fire Centre has received the equivalent of nearly a month’s worth of rain. This weather has positively impacted fires across the centre, reducing fire behaviour and supporting the efforts of our crews. pic.twitter.com/l5KEOIoFvj
— BC Wildfire Service (@BCGovFireInfo) July 27, 2023
With that, it has lowered the fire danger rating and has helped crews fighting fires in the Lower Mainland. The Davis Lake fire is now classified as being held and is no longer a wildfire of note, and the Dean River fire is also no longer a wildfire of note and will continue to be monitored.
Wildfire service operations director Cliff Chapman said the rainfall is not enough to reset. Drought conditions remain high in parts of the fire centre, including the southern Island.
“It is not enough to think that we are not going to experience new starts and very challenging and dynamic fires in the northern half of the province.”
He said there is a period of time before the return to hot weather, but the hazard is not gone and people need to be ready for what is typically the hottest and driest month: August.
“The fire season is long from over at this point in time.”
While this year has seen more than 1.5 million hectares burned in B.C., hectares burned is only one part of how this fire season compares to previous years.
Rain also plays a role, and Chapman said this year is on par with 2017, 2018 and 2021.
“Hectares burned is only one number, and it is not necessarily the biggest variable in what we would deem our most challenging or hardest fire season B.C. Wildfire Service has ever faced. I believe we are on track for that.”
The BC Wildfire Service was reporting 395 active wildfires as of Thursday afternoon, down by about 90 since Monday. Twenty-one highly visible or potentially threatening fires were listed on the service’s website, with just five new blazes recorded in the previous 24 hours.
Chapman said efforts are now being concentrated on the South Cariboo, Kamloops Fire Centre and Southeast Fire Centre.
“While we will see resources supporting the south with the increased activity, we are maintaining resources on our northern fires, where we have this significant activity over the course of the last two months,” he said.
Environment Canada is predicting another warming trend is on the way and points to a risk of thunderstorms to wrap up the week in many areas from the central coast, Cariboo and southern Interior to the northeast and southeast regions of the province.
A handful of evacuation orders have been downgraded to alerts in several parts of B.C., including for an area near the 41-square-kilometre St. Mary River wildfire that broke out 10 days ago near Cranbrook, destroying seven homes north of the city.
Ma said that as of 3 p.m. Wednesday, 1,060 people had been ordered to evacuate their homes due to wildfires, with 5,430 more under evacuation alerts, requiring them to be ready to leave at short notice.
As of Thursday, nine of the province’s 34 water basins were at Level 5 drought conditions, meaning all efforts should be made to conserve water and protect critical environmental flows. A further 14 are at Level 4, meaning harm to ecosystems and communities is likely.
“The province is actively monitoring conditions and we continue to work with communities on drought response planning,” Ma said.
The wildfire service says 1,498 mostly lightning-caused fires have been recorded in B.C., since the start of the season on April 1, charring a record-breaking 15,142 square kilometres of trees, bush and grassland.
Forests Minister Bruce Ralston said more out-of-province firefighters from Ontario and Costa Rica are expected to join the more than 600 other firefighting personnel currently in place from the United States, Mexico, Australia and Brazil.
“There are over 3,000 personnel directly engaged in wildfire response across the province today,” he said.
The province is expecting 100 firefighters and two agency representatives from Costa Rica, the wildfire service confirmed in an email.
Chapman said the service initially asked for 100 firefighters from Ontario, “which was going to be for surge capacity for us knowing that it’s going to heat up next week.” He said that is likely not possible, but two incident management teams of 10 to 14 people are expected to arrive this weekend.
Chapman said this comes as concern that fires will flare in the next week remains high, noting that August is typically the hottest and driest month.
“The hazard is not gone,” he said. “The fire season is long from over at this point in time.”