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Large wildfire in northwest B.C. not expected to grow further: wildfire service

Last Updated Sep 2, 2018 at 8:38 pm PST

FILE: The Shovel Lake wildfire burns on a mountain above Fraser Lake near Fort Fraser, B.C., on Thursday August 23, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

More than a month after it was initially discovered crews have contained one of the province's largest active wildfires

But, as another record wildfire season in B.C. winds down, we're being told this summer could have been much worse

PRINCE GEORGE, B.C. – The BC Wildfire Service says precipitation and favourable weather have allowed it to contain one of the province’s largest active wildfires, more than a month after it was initially discovered.

After growing to more than 900 square kilometres, the fire burning near Shovel Lake in northwestern B.C. was hit with scattered showers overnight, and Claire Allen of the BC Wildfire Service said any further growth is unlikely.

“We’re not under control yet, seeing as there is still a lot of internal activity and a lot of work for crews to do over the next few weeks here,” Allen said Sunday.

That work includes clearing up hotspots, perimeter patrols and assessing potentially-dangerous tree falls.

The nights in the northwest part of B.C. are becoming quite cool and dropping to near-freezing levels, which Allen said reduces their burning window considerably, though the turn of seasons does not necessarily mean the end of the wildfire season.

RELATED: Photos: Apocalyptic skies seen in parts of B.C. as raging wildfires continue

“The winds do tend to pick up in the fall so that’s something we’re watching quite closely,” she added.

Apart from potential gusts, Sunday’s forecast in the area was favourable, with highs in the mid to upper teens and plenty of moisture in the air with a humidity index of nearly 40 per cent.

This comes after winds gusting up to 60 kilometres per hour hit the blaze on Friday, which did not push the fire past the established containment lines.

Allen said as the season ends, the importance of establishing containment lines ahead of a fire front is considerably lessened, and firefighters can change their tactics to match the lowered fire activity.

“Fire behaviour generally becomes reduced this time of year, so our crews are able to do a bit more direct attack,” she said from the fire centre in Prince George, B.C.

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Allen said they have not seen as much torching in the area, where trees burn from the bottom up and resemble a torch, but noted that as autumn nears, deciduous trees will shed their leaves and create a different problem.

She said deciduous leaves tend to hold more moisture in the summer and can act as natural barrier for ground fires, but as the leaves dry and tumble from their branches, they can act as fuel for smouldering ground fires.

“We’ll be watching that in case it kicks up additional surface ground fires and have crews respond to that,” she said, adding she expected firefighters would have another few weeks left before that could become a problem.

Several evacuation alerts in the area were rescinded on Aug. 31, though further evacuation orders and alerts in the area will remain in effect.

On Sunday, an alert issued for 872 properties by the district of Fort St. James, a municipality due northeast of the wildfire, was fully rescinded.

Allen said there is no longer a threat to any structures near the Shovel Lake wildfire and Fort St. James, and that while the wildfire service could confirm the blaze was man-made, the exact cause of the fire was still under investigation by the Prince George Fire Centre.

An area restriction for public safety will remain in place for the wildfire near Shovel Lake until at least noon on Sept. 15.

Could’ve been worse

But, as another record wildfire season in B.C. winds down, we’re being told this summer could have been much worse.

Chief Information Officer Kevin Skrepnek said higher than normal rainfall in June delayed the start of what is now the most destructive summer as far as how much-forested land has been lost, noting 2017 was much drier by the start of July.

“We had an almost unprecedentedly dry June last year, so when things did come to a head in early July — that kind of July 6, 7 and 8 period when a lot of the fires started, things were really primed at that point,” he said. “This year, we had a fairly normal June in terms of rain and a bit of a slower, kind of steady roll in to when things started to get quite intense in late July and early August, so definitely, that spring rain was a bit of a saving grace for us in terms of keeping things relatively calm a little later into the summer.”

By this time last year, more than 300 buildings — including homes and barns — were lost compared to 165 so far this year.

Skrepnek adds lessons learned from the worst overall fire season on record include the addition of better-trained contract firefighters, more communications staff being hired and improved relations with First Nations following some tense run-ins last summer.

-By Spencer Harwood, with files from Marcella Bernardo