British Columbia

Thunderstorms keep B.C. forest firefighters on alert

Hot, dry conditions and the risk of lightning strikes has firefighters in B.C. on high alert, but officials say the number of wildfires this year is actually well below the seasonal average.
The north slope of the Atna Lake fire, as taken from Morice Lake in northwest B.C. on the weekend (Submitted by Erik Jensen)

Hot, dry conditions and the risk of lightning strikes has firefighters in B.C. on high alert, but officials say the number of wildfires this year is actually well below the seasonal average.

The fire danger rating for most of B.C. is high or extreme and Environment Canada has issued a severe thunderstorm watch for the Peace River, Prince George, Williston, Cariboo, McGregor and Yellowhead regions of eastern B.C.

Environment Canada had said the storms would gradually wind down Tuesday morning, but there was a possibility they could reform again later.

That forecast, combined by recent hot weather throughout the province, has crews ready to mobilize for new fires, according to fire information officer Erin Catherall.

"With the forecast of lightning, crews are getting prepared for an increase in fire starts," said Catherall.

Below average fire season

Between Sunday and Monday, there were 52 new fires caused by lightning in the province, though most covered an area of less than one hectare.

The forest service is currently tracking nearly 100 significant fires across B.C., but so far the 2012 forest fire season has been below average when it comes to the number of fires reported, and almost none have posed a serious threat to people or their homes.

As of Monday, the province saw nearly 1,100 fires since April 1, far below the 10-year average of roughly 1,600 by this time, said Catherall.

Last year, considered one of the slowest seasons on record, there were fewer than 500 fires on the books by mid-August.

Catherall noted August is among the hottest months of the year in B.C., though the fire season can extend much later.

"Typically, August is one of the warmer months of the season and weather is a huge contributor to the risk of wildfire starts," she said.

"We have been having warm weather over the last while, so that has increased our fire danger rating, but each fire season is different. We have seen fire seasons extend as far as the end of October, early November, so we're not necessarily out of the woods yet."

Oil and gas workers concerned

The largest fire in the province is the 8,700-hectare Pesh fire burning near Suhm Creek in the far northeastern corner of the province. The fire is not contained and is burning within three kilometres of a natural gas plant.

An evacuation alert has been issued for 300 workers in the area, but the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission says right now there are no immediate safety threats to workers or infrastructure.

Nearby, the 3,500-hectare Eskal wildfire 60 kilometres southeast of Fort Nelson also has workers in nearby energy fields on edge.

Jordon Williamson, who drives a truck in the oil and gas industry, says the situation is making him nervous.

"Where I drive to go to work it's about 140 kilometres away from Fort Nelson. At about the 120 kilometre mark you can see the smoke from the fire and it almost looks like a volcano going off. It's pretty cool but at the same time it's pretty concerning," said Williamson.

The Atna Lake fire burning in Morice Provincial Park in northwestern B.C. has also seen a dramatic increase in size. It's grown almost 700 per cent to 1,400 hectares since the weekend.

A smoke advisory for Burns Lake has been lifted after overnight rain caused the smoke from a nearby fire to dissipate. On Monday the smoke from the fire was visible from many points along Highway 16 east of Prince George.

Smoke can also be seen along Highway 37 from the Good Hope Lake fire burning near Boya Lake Provincial Park, east of the Dease River, which now covers 3,500 hectares.

With files from The Canadian Press