British Columbia

Preventable fires caused due to 'complacency and ignorance,' officials say

The majority of more than 310 fires in B.C. in 2017 have been human caused, say officials who have a stern warning for would-be fire bugs during the upcoming heat wave.

'The people of this province are the first line of defence in terms of getting these fires responded to'

Firefighters put out smouldering hot spots on Wednesday morning in Kaleden, after a wildfire triggered an evacuation on Tuesday afternoon. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

There have been around 310 wildfires in British Columbia so far in 2017 and more than two-thirds of them were human caused, according to the B.C. Wildfire Service.

On Thursday, crews began battling two new fires, one on Vancouver Island and another near 100 Mile House, which quickly grew to 140 hectares in size, then expanded to nearly 400 hectares just a few hours later.

With the fire danger at extreme in some parts of the province, campfire bans are in place and officials are pleading with the public to behave responsibly and follow restrictions.

"Definitely, with a certain percentage of the population, there's an air of indifference. Some are just oblivious too," said Jeff Bush, an assistant chief with West Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services.

The usual suspects

Most human-caused fires can be traced back to a recklessly discarded cigarette butt or a badly extinguished campfire, said Kevin Skrepnek, chief fire information officer with the B.C. Wildfire Service.

Less often, human-caused fires are found to be due to arson, industrial activity, recreational vehicles or even vehicle incidents like the one being blamed for a fire that destroyed a Kamloops area building this week.

"It's not often we see these as being done intentionally in the form of arson, just due to complacency and ignorance," Skrepnek told Andrew Chang, guest host of CBC's B.C. Almanac.

With a dry and hot weather outlook stretching into the weeks ahead, officials want to make sure fire risks are top of mind for everyone, not just backcountry users and campers.

"The people of this province are the first line of defence in terms of getting these fires responded to," said Skrepnek who directed residents to call 1-800-663-5555 or [star] 5555 from a cell phone to report a fire or irresponsible behaviour.

$575 fine for tossing butts

Skrepnek added that an unusually wet spring and floods in the Interior may have some people wrongly assuming there's little reason for concern.

Despite the late arrival of summer, much of the province is already tinder dry and at a high risk of igniting, he said.

Skrepnek warned that anyone found guilty of starting a wildfire faces not only large fines, but potential criminal charges or may be forced to pay for the cost of fighting the fire.

"If it's determined the discarded cigarette caused a wildfire, you're potentially looking at a huge penalty, right up to and including the cost of suppression of that fire, which can be hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said.

As of April 1, 2016, the fine for dropping, releasing or mishandling a burning substance more than tripled to $575. The fine for failing to report a fire is at $383 and anyone caught not respecting a fire ban could face a fine of up to $1,150.

But enforcement remains a challenge for police and fire officials, according to Bush, who wants to see more people using the province's hotline.

"Catching  them in the act is something that's proven to be difficult with limited resources," said Bush.

Last year, the province spent $122 million fighting 1,050 wildfires, 54 per cent of which were human caused.

According to data from the B.C. Wildfire Service, the 2015 fire season was devastating and expensive, costing the province $287 million, more than twice the 10-year average.

"While lightning accounted for over two thirds (or 1,234) of wildfires in 2015, many of the most destructive fires were caused by people, and therefore preventable," according to the B.C. Wildfire Service fire season summary.