British Columbia

'It's a bleak situation': B.C. firefighters watch ominous southern California flames

While B.C. wildfire firefighters may be spending the off-season skiing, going to school or working other jobs, don't think they're not keeping an eye on wildfires burning in California.

B.C. Wildfire Service's Kevin Skrepnek says firefighters thankful province doesn't face year-round threat

Firefighters work to put out a blaze on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, in Ventura, Calif. (Ryan Cullom/Ventura County Fire Department via Associated Press)

B.C. wildfire firefighters may be spending the off-season skiing, going to school or working other jobs, but don't think they're not watching California's wildfires.

"You know after the season we've had ... seeing those images is all the more intense, all the more evocative," said Kevin Skrepnek, the chief fire information officer for the B.C. Wildfire Service.

California fires have become some of the largest and most devastating fires in the state's history. One of them, the Thomas Fire, is burning 160 kilometres from Los Angeles.

"Definitely a pretty bleak situation in some areas for what our colleagues are facing down there," said Skrepnek.

He added that authorities in the U.S. have not asked for help from the B.C. Wildfire Service, which would come through a federal wildfire centre based in Winnipeg.

Christmas decorations illuminate a house as the growing Thomas Fire advances toward Santa Barbara County seaside communities on December 10, 2017 in Carpinteria, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Still, there are parallels between what crews are battling in California and what firefighters faced in B.C. last summer such as the speed at which fires are spreading and the threat to homes in rural areas.

Winds were a problem for firefighters in B.C., which caused fires to spread rapidly. The Santa Ana winds in California — extremely strong and dry inland winds — continue to fan flames.

Johanna Wagstaffe explains what factors are contributing to the severe fire season 2:23

So far, the Thomas Fire has destroyed around 700 homes. In B.C., hundreds of homes were destroyed last summer in the Cariboo and Thompson-Nicola regions.

Dozens of people have died as a result of fires in California this fall. In B.C. there were no fatalities last summer even though 1.2 million hectares of land burned in B.C. and 65,000 people were displaced — both record numbers.

"That is quite frankly a miracle given everything that was going on," said Skrepnek.

Skrepnek says the B.C. wildfire season is seasonal, whereas in California it can be a year-round threat. Some areas have gone hundreds of days without rain.

Interface fires

A big part of California's problem is that homes are located close to wilderness areas that are burning, something firefighters call interface fires.

Skrepnek says interface fires are a growing problem in B.C. as well, but he's not saying people should avoid living in rural areas.

"It's not to say that that can't be done in a responsible way," he said.

There is an initiative called FireSmart, that informs owners how to fireproof their homes by avoiding certain types of trees or plants on properties, and building materials such as wood shakes, wood or vinyl siding or wooden fences.

Skrepnek says dealing with regular, intense and even drawn out wildfire seasons, which people like California Governor Jerry Brown describe as "the new normal," will require the help of homeowners and communities.

"It isn't just purely about sending women and men out to put those fires out," he said.

The Elephant Hill wildfire burns through a hillside near Clinton, B.C., on Aug. 8, 2017. (Master Cpl. Malcolm Byers/Wainwright Garrison Imaging)

According to the latest figures from the B.C. Wildfire Service, $567 million has been spent on fire suppression in the province for 2017, a record for paying to battle wildfires.

While the wildfire service will continue to monitor events in California, it will also await the results on an independent review of the past wildfire season here.

Those are expected in April and will help shape the response to wildfires expected in 2018.