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'Extremely aggressive' B.C. wildfires straining resources, no state of emergency declared

Last Updated Jul 16, 2021 at 6:10 am PDT

FILE -- The Brenda Creek wildfire is burning south of Highway 97C in the Okanagan. (Courtesy: BC Wildfire Service)

There are 309 fires burning, 28 of which present a risk to public safety

Residents in more than 2,800 hundred properties have been forced to evacuate their homes, while 10,000 more are on alert

VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) — With hundreds of wildfires burning in B.C., and thousands of homes on evacuation alert or order, the province’s wildfire service says a lack of resources is forcing officials to focus the fight on threats to lives and safety.

There are 309 fires burning. Twenty-eight of those are “of note,” meaning they are “highly visible or pose a potential threat to public safety.”

Residents in more than 2,800 hundred properties have been forced to evacuate their homes, while 10,000 more are on alert and have been told to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

Brendan Ralfs, with Emergency Management BC, says it’s been challenging to keep up with the rapidly changing fire situation across the province.

“This situation is dynamic. The numbers are changing rapidly sometimes hourly.”

While the hard-hit Thompson-Nicola Regional district is calling on the province to declare a state of emergency, Ralfs says that is not needed at this point.

“A provincial state of emergency will be enacted if and when it’s required,” he says.

“It’s primarily a legislative tool and during this current event, a provincial declaration of a state of emergency has not been necessary to provide assistance to people, to access funding or to coordinate or obtain additional resources including federal assets.”

The BC Wildfire Service’s deputy director Kurtis Isfeld says the fire conditions are more reminiscent of August, and the forecast shows no reprieve in sight from the hot, dry weather. More than 200,000 hectares have been burned since April 1. The 10-year average is about 60,000.

“Conditions — obviously — in British Columbia, are challenging. We are seeing fire behaviour exhibited that is extremely aggressive,” he says.

“With the current resource challenges that we have, we are unable to commit to all new ignitions, which means our focus at this point is on allocating those resources to values of life and safety Because current fire behaviour is aggressive, our focus remains on initial attack. So, new fire starts, are, are the priority for our ground and our air crews. We’re comfortable right now that the fires that are of top priority, the ones that are affecting communities, major transportation corridors, power lines, are ones that we have our resources on.”

After the record-breaking heatwave that scorched the province in late June, Isfeld says there were more than 200,000 lightning strikes. Forty-eight per cent of the fires burning have been caused by lightning, while 35 per cent have been human-caused, and 16 per cent are under investigation, according to Isfeld.

“We’d like to encourage the public to be extremely cautious in engaging in any activity that could cause a wildfire. We maintain that human-caused wildfires are entirely preventable, and assure they unnecessarily divert firefighting resources from our naturally occurring fire,” he says.

The Director of Fire Centre Operations for the BC Wildfire Service, Rob Schweitzer, confirms they’ve already asked for support from retired firefighters, international crews, other provinces and the feds.

“We’re reaching out to our international partners and across Canada, because we will take as many as they’re willing to send us, we’ll take them now because we know this is going to be a long season,” he says.

“We need all the resources we can to be successful, so we’re not turning away anybody that’s coming to us.”

The current firefighting effort consists of 2,500 personnel and 150 aircraft.

Dawn Roberts, Director of Communications for the BC RCMP, says police are also prioritizing where and when to send extra help — with officers going door-to-door in areas where evacuation orders have been issued.

“Primarily we are focusing on the additional resources in the Interior, and we’re ready should the conditions change or another need be established. Those resources are on standby they’re being drawn from all around B.C., and they’re going to be deployed as and when necessary,” she says, adding conservation officers, and volunteer search and rescue crews are assisting.

Dr. Bonnie Henry is urging anyone who may have to evacuate, to make sure they get their vaccine, to ensure the COVID-19 virus is not spread through evacuation centres.

With files from the Canadian Press