British Columbia

Vancouver firefighters warn of high urban fire dangers

From park barbecues to power tools, Vancouver's fire department is pleading with residents to be more careful, especially with cigarette butts.

Fire department pleading for people to be more careful, especially with cigarettes

Vancouver Fire Rescue Services extinguish a cigarette fire in Stanley Park on May 2, 2019. (Vancouver Fire Rescue Services/Twitter)

From park barbecues to tossed cigarette butts and illicit backyard bonfires, Vancouver's firefighters are pleading with residents to be more careful as blazes rage across the province.

After a week of record-setting heat, even running outdoor appliances such as pressure washers or generators could suddenly ignite a blaze, warned Capt. Jonathan Gormick with Vancouver Fire Rescue Services.

The city's fire danger rating is currently set to "high," meaning it would take very little to spark quick-spreading grass or brush fires.

"The problem with these outdoor fires is they draw resources away from the already-high call volume and just add to our load," Gormick said in an interview Saturday.

Emergency personnel drained

While some urbanites might imagine that living near a coastal rainforest might dampen the dangers of an out-of-control fire, that assumption is incorrect.

The extreme heatwave of the past week not only dried out much of the potential fuel for fires around the city, Gormick said, but also drained the city's firefighters themselves.

On Tuesday morning, Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services responded to a fire burning approximately one kilometre from the road down a steep embankment separating the popular clothing-optional swimming spot Wreck Beach with Northwest Marine Drive near the University of British Columbia. (Yvette Brend/CBC News)

The record-high temperatures in the province are believed to have contributed to hundreds of deaths in the city, clogging up emergency lines and stretching personnel.

"Last week was absolutely unbelievable, something I didn't think I'd see during my career," Gormick said.

Particularly risky activities for urban fires, he explained, include tossed cigarette butts — carrying a $500 fine — as well as barbecues in parks and backyards, and outdoor appliances such as power washers or generators. It also includes bonfires, which are banned throughout the city, even on private property.

Barbecues are currently still allowed in the city's parks, he said, but if the danger rating worsens they could be banned until conditions improve. That would happen if the danger rises to "extreme," a level that would also see fire personnel deployed to parks across the city.

Worst fire culprit

The worst culprit for urban fires, according to a fire department release Friday, is discarded cigarette butts, which are responsible for almost all fires in the city's green spaces — especially those flung from vehicles.

Smoking is already banned in parks and recreation facilities. Gormick pleaded with smokers to use the provided disposal boxes where they're available.

Gormick added that Vancouver firefighters could potentially be deployed at any moment to help fight wildfires elsewhere in the province, as has happened in previous summers. 

Vancouver park ranger Daniel Wong posts a bright yellow sign warning of the fire danger at Third Beach in this 2018 file photo. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

On Friday, the B.C. Wildfire Service told reporters it was mindful of the strain on its personnel because of the unusually early and intense fire season, especially considering what is expected to be an extra-long summer on the front lines.

The province is prioritizing air transport to move firefighters quickly to the highest-risk areas, including from other communities.

"If we see this fire danger persist throughout the province, we could see some of our crews deployed, just further stretching what we have thin," Gormick noted.

"The more people can do to prevent the need for 911 calls for fires — taking care of those ignition sources and following the rules we have in place — the more energy and resources we'll have to put toward places that really need it."

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.

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