British Columbia

B.C. firefighters feeling the strain from 'long summer' on the front lines, officials say

Though the weather in recent days has brought a measure of relief to the women and men fighting B.C.'s wildfires, fatigue is starting to set in and safety issues are popping up, officials said Thursday.

Cooler, wetter weather has been a relief for crews, but some regions are still seeing extreme fire behaviour

The B.C. Wildfire Service's manager of operations says it's been a long summer for those on the front lines and fatigue is starting to set in resulting in 'more slips, trips [and] falls, as well as more serious occurrences.' (B.C. Wildfire Service/Twitter)

Though the weather in recent days has brought a measure of relief to the women and men fighting B.C.'s wildfires, fatigue is setting in and safety issues are popping up, officials said Thursday.

Todd Nessman, the manager of fire operations for the B.C. Wildfire Service, said cooler temperatures and increased precipitation have helped crews make progress on containing many fires and calmed blazes that had been burning too aggressively to get close to before this week.

Nonetheless, the strain is starting to show.

"Fatigue is something that we have a concern with. It's been a long summer for our firefighters, and many of the staff supporting their efforts," Nessman told reporters.

"With that increased fatigue, we're starting to see more safety concerns come forward — more slips, trips [and] falls, as well as more serious occurrences."

There are currently more than 3,800 firefighters and other personnel working B.C.'s fires, but Nessman noted that the wildfire service will inevitably lose many members of its crews when post-secondary schools begin their fall semester next month.

Firefighters work on the Thomas Creek wildfire near Okanagan Falls, B.C., on Aug. 18, 2021. (B.C. Wildfire Service/Facebook)

As of Thursday morning, more than 8,520 square kilometres of B.C. has burned in 2021 — the fourth-highest total on record. The 10-year average for this time of year is 2,230 square kilometres.

Nessman said there are currently 258 active fires burning across the province, about 70 per cent of which were sparked by lightning. An average of five to 10 new fires are being discovered every day right now, but the improved weather conditions have allowed crews to manage these without too much trouble, he said.

According to Emergency Management B.C., 75 evacuation orders remained in effect Thursday afternoon, affecting 6,126 properties, along with 122 evacuation alerts covering 19,840 properties.

The past few days have seen several evacuation orders lifted and alerts rescinded. That includes one covering the approximately 2,000 residents of the southern Interior community of Logan Lake, who were told they could return home Thursday, a week after they were ordered to leave.

No structures in Logan Lake were lost to the Tremont Creek fire, an achievement that Nessman described as "a big win" for firefighters who worked through the night.

'We're nowhere near out of the woods'

Despite the recent cooler and wetter weather, Nessman noted that fire behaviour within the Cariboo Fire Centre and the South Okanagan is still quite dangerous.

Speaking at the same briefing, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth described the recent rain as "welcome news for all of us" and thanked firefighters for their hard work.

"But the rain has not been enough to counteract the effects of the already tinder-dry conditions that are fuelling these fires. We're nowhere near out of the woods," he said.

A helicopter carrying a water bucket flies past a pyrocumulus cloud, also known as a fire cloud, produced by the Lytton Creek wildfire burning in the mountains above Lytton, B.C., on Aug. 15, 2021. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Those concerns were echoed at a public information meeting held Thursday by the Thompson-Nicola Regional District.

Hannah Swift, the fire information officer for the destructive White Rock Lake wildfire, said that while recent fire activity has been less extreme, the effects of the rainfall earlier this week are starting to wear off.

"Each day it is getting drier and drier since we've received that rain on Monday," she said. "Fintry down in the southeast … is probably one of the highest drought conditions in the province at this point, so we are seeing the most active fire behaviour down there."

The White Rock Lake wildfire is currently estimated at 811 square kilometres in size.

On Vancouver Island, which has had a relatively quiet fire season so far, a new blaze was sparked Thursday afternoon just to the northwest of Ladysmith, and had grown to 0.2 square kilometres by the evening. The B.C. Wildfire Service said helicopters and air tankers were on the scene, and ground crews planned to work through the night to get it under control.

Also on Thursday, Farnworth addressed criticism from some wildfire evacuees about Premier John Horgan's continuing absence from the province during this state of emergency.

He said everyone should feel assured that wildfire service crews "are doing everything they can" to protect homes and businesses from fires.

"The premier is being briefed every single day and he is very much aware what is going on," Farnworth said.

With files from Rachel Adams

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