British Columbia

Wildfire efforts could lose up to 40% of crews as students return to school

As the province extends a state of emergency regarding the wildfire crisis, up to 40 per cent of firefighting crews could soon be gone.

The B.C. Wildfire Service is bringing in out of province personnel to offset the loss

Fire crews assess and fell dangerous trees in the southwest section of the Verdant Creek wildfire near Highway 93S in a handout photo from Parks Canada. (Canaidan Press/Parks Canada-M.Kinley )

The B.C. Wildfire Service could lose between 30 and 40 per cent of its fire crews in September as students return to school and seasonal contracts come to an end.

The loss of personnel also extends to dispatchers and radio operators, many of whom work on seasonal contracts.

Kevin Skrepnek, chief information officer for the B.C. Wildfire Service, said that out-of-province and international crews are being brought in to offset the potential deficit.

Assistance is also being sought from the Armed Forces, local fire departments and the forest industry.

"We face this every year," said Skrepnek. "But this year given the gravity, it's a little bit more exacerbated."

Skrepnek said he hopes some students will be able to re-arrange their class schedules and stay on longer than planned, and that the service will to accommodate students who offer to stay on.

Efforts are also being made to extend future seasonal contracts to six to eight months.

Firefighters prepare their gear near Princeton. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Fires have slowed, but conditions remain volatile

The admission comes on the same week that 2017 officially became B.C.'s worst fire season on record.

Over 900,000 hectares of land has been charred since April 1, eclipsing the mark set in 1958, when 855,000 hectares burned.

"That's part of the reason why we're engaging so much support — to make sure that towards the end of August, early September, if these people do start to leave, that we still have capacity to continue responding and staffing the fires that we have now,​ said Skrepnek.

The wildfire crisis has slowed down since a chaotic Friday in July when fires began springing up across the province.

At its peak, 45,000 people were forced out of their homes by the threat of fire. There are currently 4,403 people in B.C. under evacuation order, and 20,756 people under evacuation alert.

With 140 fires currently burning across B.C., the province has extended the provincial state of emergency originally declared on July 7 until September 1, making this the longest provincial emergency declaration in the history of the province.