British Columbia

Climate change expected to bring longer wildfire seasons, larger area burned: expert

Drought, heat and drier fuels are causing larger areas to be burned by B.C. wildfires, says forestry expert.
The Nk'Mip Creek wildfire burns behind residential properties near Oliver, B.C., in this July 22 file photo. (Submitted by James Moore)

A combination of drought, heat and drier fuels is causing larger areas to be burned in British Columbia, says an expert.

Kira Hoffman, a post-doctoral researcher with the University of British Columbia's faculty of forestry, said climate change is expected to create longer wildfire seasons because of more drought, which leads to drier trees and grasses.

All of this leads to longer fire seasons and more area burned even though there are fewer blazes, she said.

B.C. Wildfire Service information officer Karley Desrosiers said the area burned is "certainly more'' this year compared with previous years.

The province has seen 4,090 square kilometres scorched so far this year, which is about four times the five- and 10-year averages, she said Sunday in an interview.

The area burned in 2018 was 13,000 square kilometres compared with 12,000 square kilometres the previous year.

The B.C. Wildfire Service said there are 258 blazes currently burning in the province.

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The number of wildfires is one fewer than Saturday's update, and down from about 300 earlier in the week.

There are now 58 evacuation orders in place, affecting about 4,400 properties.

Another nearly 17,500 properties are on evacuation alert, meaning residents have been told to be ready to leave on short notice.

Desrosiers said the heat wave in late June and early July added to the increase in wildfires by drying out forest fuels.

"The drying that we would see in generally like a month to a month-and-a-half happened in a matter of seven days,'' she said. "So that made things a lot more susceptible to ignition and that's kind of what happened when we got a lot of lightning then that resulted in many new fires.''

The province is also battling lack of water with seven areas under Drought Level 4 restrictions, which are the second-most severe on B.C.'s scale of five.

The areas covered include the Salmon, Coldwater and Nicola rivers in the Thompson-Okanagan; the Kettle River, Lower Columbia Basin and West Kootenay Basin; as well as the Eastern Vancouver Island Basin.

Drought Level 4 can adversely impact fish and ecosystems, with water shortages being reported in several private groundwater wells, said a news release from the province.

Hoffman said vegetation in forests dried out much earlier this year due to a lack of rainfall and "record setting temperatures'' that added to the increase in wildfires.

Firefighters have become "really good'' at putting out wildfires to the point where forests have an overload of dead and dry fuel in the forests, she said.

"We have a problem where we have a huge fuel load in our forests, and a lot of these fires are becoming insuppressible, so they're very difficult to control,'' she said.

"They're very unpredictable.''

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Wildfires in the province are "complicated'' by insect outbreaks, diseases, and high intensity winds among other things, Hoffman said.

"That would have, you know, been mitigated by previous wildfire but they're more,'' she said. "Now they're contributing to extreme wildfire events.''

This in turn has led to fewer but more higher intensity fires, she added.

One of the ways to mitigate wildfires is to have prescribed burns as were done by Indigenous people, Hoffman said.

Bob Gray, from Chilliwack, B.C., who consults for local, provincial, state and tribal governments across Canada and the United States, had said the province should burn tens of thousands of hectares every year to reduce fallen branches and leaves in forests. The Forests Ministry said it burned an average of 50 square kilometres annually from 2010 to 2019.

Hoffman said prescribed burning is considered a "risky tool'' by many, but studies have shown that when done well the probability of "fire escape is very low.''

"We do need suppression. We need it in the summer months when we are dealing with really hot and dry conditions and when we have fires that may impact communities,'' she said. "But then we also need mitigation in the spring, fall and winter.''

Anyone placed under an evacuation order should leave the area immediately. 

Evacuation centres have been set up throughout the province to assist anyone evacuating from a community under threat from a wildfire. To find the centre closest to you, visit the Emergency Management B.C. website.

Evacuees are encouraged to register with Emergency Support Services online, whether or not they access services at an evacuation centre.