British Columbia

Climate change is forcing B.C. to rethink how it fights wildfires, say experts

B.C.'s approach to battling fires is changing, but experts ask if it's adapting fast enough.

Tactics are adapting, but not fast enough as wildfires worsen, they say

Members of the B.C. Wildfire Service conduct a controlled burn in 2021 to use up fuel like dry grass and pine needles and prevent future wildfires. (BC Wildfire Service/Twitter)

How British Columbia battles wildfires needs to urgently adapt to the growing impacts of climate change, several experts said Friday.

While the province has invested millions in fire prevention, some in the fire management sector say much more is needed, as well as a fundamental rethinking of fire suppression.

The sudden incineration of homes in Lytton on Thursday — with at least presumed two dead in the blaze, according to the  BC Coroners Service — came as a shock to one wildfire expert who previously advised groups in the area on prevention.

"I was quite surprised to see how everything transpired there because I know how much work they've done in Lytton in the past," said Brenden Mercer, forestry management liaison for First Nations' Emergency Services Society, who conducted assessments for Lytton-area First Nations and municipal authorities.

"I can tell you they have been dealing with the highest hazards around their community.

"When I did those assessments, I identified areas with tons of grass and needles, and they cleaned them all up. But they couldn't tackle all the hazards around the community."

As of Friday night, according to the B.C. Wildfire Service, the province had 172 active wildfires following an estimated 12,000 lightning strikes across the province. Nearly 1,400 homes are under evacuation orders while hundreds more residents have been told to get ready to leave.

The agency warned the public to brace for "significant fire activity across the province" over the next two days.

"Generally speaking, we're three weeks ahead of our drying cycle," Cliff Chapman, director of regional operations for the B.C. Wildfire Service, told reporters Friday afternoon. "It is not really comparable to seasons of the past just because of the heat wave that set in in June."

He warned there likely will not be much moisture in B.C.'s south anytime soon, and what little is predicted "is not enough to damper" the increasingly dry fuel for wildfires. Chapman said firefighters are bracing for a longer-than-usual fire season.

And a longer duration of more intense fires will undoubtedly put a strain on the service's firefighting front lines, he said, making it essential to be able to move personnel swiftly across regions to the worst-hit areas.

"Obviously with the record-breaking heat, we were anticipating the potential for significant fire behaviours across the province," he told reporters. "B.C. Wildfire Service continues to prepare for the next two months ahead, looking after our staff, ensuring we bring in resources when we need to so we're ready, and can rest our staff for what is appearing to look like a long season ahead."

A firefighting recruit works to extinguish an intentionally lit fire in a forest near Merritt, B.C., during training last year. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Mercer, a registered forest technologist, said that much has improved in B.C. since the devastating wildfire season in 2017. In particular, the province has committed to working with First Nations, and there is funding for training Indigenous firefighters and preparedness.

But he said more support is needed, in particular when it comes to prescribed burns which are carefully controlled blazes intentionally set to use up potential wildfire fuel. Such practices were widespread among Indigenous peoples in B.C. — but recent decades of fighting fires instead of preventively managing their fuel mean that many ecosystems have become a tinderbox.

"It's come to the point where some of these ecosystems have so much more fuel than they would have historically," Mercer explained.

There is also more urban development encroaching on forests and climate change is also at play, contributing to the recent heat wave which saw records shattered across the province —  the highest in Lytton which reached 49.6C a day before it burned.

He urged authorities to follow First Nations' advice and do "more aggressive prescribed burning," especially around communities surrounded by grasslands mixed with pine needles.

Dry grass is removed as part of a controlled burn in Whitehorse in 2019. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

"Putting fire back into the landscape can help protect it from fire for almost a decade," he said. "It's 100 per cent the way the Indigenous people look at wildfires, compared to how governments fight wildfires. 

After the 2017 wildfires, the province's emergency management agency increased its cooperation with First Nations. On Friday, Emergency Management B.C.'s Pader Brach said the province made efforts to ensure Indigenous communities were "sitting at the same table" as soon as possible this week, and that the government was taking a "collaborative" approach.

'How do we adapt to this new reality?'

The Lytton fire can also serve as a wake-up call to prepare for the long-predicted impacts of climate change, said an expert at the University of Victoria.

"Climate impacts are driving these extreme fire seasons," said Carly Phillips, with the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions' Wildfire and Carbon Project. "How do we adapt to this new reality?

"Climate change is going to change the underlying conditions our forests are experiencing — which might change how we need to approach not only fire management, but also landscape and resource management."

Unfortunately, she said, not only are wildfires worsened by climate change, but in turn, burning forests contributes massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change itself.

For Phillips, the destruction of Lytton underscored the urgency with which authorities must ramp up wildfire prevention.

"Lytton was such a tragedy and a sombre reminder of what we're facing with climate change and how real these impacts are for people who are part of our communities and our province," she said. "We need to do more proactive adaptation — and not manage fires only after they start." 


With files from The Early Edition and On the Coast.


Anyone placed under an evacuation order must leave the area immediately. Evacuation centres have been set up in the following locations to assist anyone evacuating from a community under threat from a wildfire: 

  • Castlegar: Castlegar Community Complex, 2102 6th Ave.
  • Chilliwack: Chilliwack Senior Secondary, 46363 Yale Rd.
  • Kelowna: Salvation Army, 1480 Sutherland Ave.
  • Merritt: Merritt Civic Centre, 1950 Mamette Ave.

Evacuees are encouraged to register with Emergency Support Services online, whether or not they access services at an evacuation centre.Those looking for loved ones can contact the Canadian Red Cross for family reunification services at 1-800-863-6582

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David P. Ball

@davidpball

David P. Ball is a CBC News reporter in Vancouver. Send story tips or ideas to david.ball@cbc.ca, or find him on Twitter @davidpball.

With files from The Early Edition and On the Coast

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