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 April 08, 2019
BC's worst wildfire seasons were 2017 & 2018. What will happen in 2019?

 Ester Spye finally moved into her new home in October, 14 months after a relentless 2017 wildfire blew through the Ashcroft Indian Band, forcing residents to flee and devouring nine houses.

Spye and her dog Sweets took refuge in a Cache Creek hotel shortly after the July 2017 inferno destroyed their house, and stayed there until it was rebuilt more than a year later.

She is grateful to be back in her community, along with her cat Socks, who was missing for 52 days after the blaze. And she's grateful for her new home, which has a tin roof and is covered in siding that she was told is fireproof.

But the life-changing experience has left her wary.

"As soon as I see fire, I panic," she said. "I just really watch for smoke."

Spye is likely not alone, as she was one of 65,000 evacuees and her home one of 509 buildings burnt by the 2017 wildfires, which scorched 12,000 sq. km of land in B.C. Last year's forest fires were even more destructive, consuming 13,500 sq. km --- although fewer people were evacuated (6,000) and fewer structures lost (158).

These last two summers were the worst wildfire seasons on record and both resulted in a provincial state of emergency being declared. So what should B.C. residents expect this year?

That will depend entirely on the weather this spring and summer: whether it will be cool and rainy or hot with lots of lightning, said University of Alberta professor and wildfire expert Mike Flannigan.

"My guess is it is going to be an active fire season, above normal, but that is a very cautious (guess)," said Flannigan, director of the Edmonton-based Canadian Partnership for Wildland Fire Science.

"You've had two record-breaking fire seasons. It's unusual to get three bad fire seasons in a row, but with the crazy weather and arguably with climate change, I wouldn't rule it out."

March was a record-dry month, with Vancouver receiving just a quarter of its average monthly rainfall --- and there was even less precipitation in parts of Vancouver Island and the northern Interior, according to the Weather Network.

While spring weather will not necessarily foreshadow the extent of forest fires this summer, the unusually dry March has led to an early start to the 2019 wildfire season. More than 16 fires have ignited in the last week, including two near Kamloops that both grew larger than 100 hectares --- one quarter the size of Stanley Park --- and one near Squamish that reached 50 hectares.

Fires starting earlier

These premature blazes continue a worrisome trend that started about two decades ago, said Phil Burton, a professor in the ecosystem science and management program at the University of Northern B.C.

"We are having earlier fire seasons. The mere fact that we are having fires reported in March is in itself different from anything we've had in the 1960s, '70s or '80s," said Burton. "We typically think of the fire season as starting with the university students being out of school, the last week of April or the first few weeks of May."

While the intensity of this coming fire season will be weather dependent, Burton noted this new era of "greater uncertainty" for wildfire activity makes planning by residents very difficult.

"Keep an eye on the weather when it comes to travel plans and any outdoor activities or work scheduling. The possibility of another fire year, whether it's an average or severe one, can always be a joker in the deck that can require people to change their plans," he warned.

Glenda Wilson was very worried last summer about having to live through another forest fire, after she was forced to flee the Ashcroft Indian Band, along with her aunt Ester Spye, in July 2017.

"Last year, my anxiety was up so high and I've never, ever experienced that. My chest was hurting. I went to the doctor's. I was having nightmares about the fire happening again," she recalled this week. "By the middle of July (2018), I started calming down and my dreams weren't getting crazy anymore. It must have been that one-year mark. It was always in the back of my head."

In 2018, Ashcroft was covered in a smoky haze from fires burning in other areas, but no flames threatened the community. Wilson hopes this summer will be even less eventful.

She lives two doors down from Spye, but her home was spared while her aunt's was razed. When she returned to the community after the 2017 fire was extinguished, the homecoming was bittersweet.

"It was very different. Things changed a lot when we were able to move back home. I don't know how to explain it. I don't want to say 'like a ghost town.' You were so used to having so many people here, but half the reserve was gone," she recalled.

"After the fire a whole bunch of new emotions came flooding through me."

Wilson believes her house escaped the flames, in part, because her husband cut all the weeds and other growth from their yard before the blaze arrived. This year the couple, who have 12-year-old twin boys, plan to buy their own electric weed trimmer and do a controlled burn on their property of any leaves, sticks and other potential fuel for a fire.

"I hope everything is just going to be OK," Wilson said of this summer.

Many of the most destructive fires in 2017 were near Kamloops and in the Cariboo region, affecting communities such as Williams Lake, 100 Mile House, Princeton, Cache Creek, Ashcroft, Clearwater and Quesnel.

In 2018, there were evacuation orders farther north, including west of Prince George and southeast of Terrace. One of the communities hardest hit was northern B.C.'s Telegraph Creek, home to the Tahltan First Nation, where more than 30 buildings were lost to the flames.

Heidi and Travis Hebb and their three kids lost their family home.

"Just that memory of throwing things into a truck as fast as we could, and being doused with fire retardant as we were leaving, with the fire just a couple hundred metres away from us ... it was devastating," said Heidi Hebb last August, when friends created a GoFundMe drive to help the family. "There's so many people that have lost everything --- lost homes and so many memories."

Fire also damaged part of a ranch belonging to the family of Chief Chad Day, president of the Tahltan Central Government. He said it would take a long time for his community to recover.

"It's going to take years to rebuild what's been lost, and it's going to take decades for the land to be restored to where it was before, because we've lost a lot of forests," Day said last August.

Smoky skies and health concerns

While Hebb and Day's community struggled with devastating fire damage in 2018, other parts of B.C. --- including Metro Vancouver --- were enveloped in thick smoke from these blazes and many hundreds of others across the province last summer.

Air-quality advisories were issued for Metro and the Fraser Valley, and the dense haze led to a significant increase in visits to doctors and in prescriptions to treat lung ailments last August.

Flannigan, the University of Alberta professor, estimated that people doing exercise or working outside during the height of the wildfire smoke could have inhaled the equivalent of two packages of cigarettes per day.

"There are over 4,000 chemicals in smoke," he added. "It's a chemical soup."

If the smoke returns this summer, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control recommends residents exercise indoors, drink lots of water, drive with the windows rolled up, and consider spending time in places with filtered air, such as libraries, community centres and malls. Portable air cleaners that use HEPA filtration can also be useful if it gets smoky inside houses.

Most of the experts interviewed for this story had varying opinions on the usefulness of facial masks. Sarah Henderson, a BCCDC senior scientist, said disposable N95 particulate respirator masks, available at most hardware stores, are the best option if they are properly fitted.

"But there are still some concerns. Wearing N95s can make it more difficult to breathe, they do not work well when wet, and they may give a false sense of security that discourages more protective actions, such as spending time indoors and taking it easy outdoors," Henderson said.

However, experts prefer the N95 style over surgical masks, which "offer limited protection, at best," Henderson said.

Smoke has been a major concern for two summers in a row and whether it returns this year will depend, in part, on the direction and strength of the winds during any fires, said B.C. Wildfire Service chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek.

B.C. wildfire budget doubled

Over the last two summers, the provincial government grossly outspent its wildfire budgets --- by 10 times in 2017, when it cost more than $650 million to fight the fires.

This year, the NDP is trying to be better prepared for the unknown by nearly doubling its wildfire budget, boosting it from $64 million in 2018 to $101 million.

"We've taken a hard look at additional steps we can take to not only prevent wildfires, but also enhance our response on the ground during wildfire season," Forests Minister Doug Donaldson said last month.

Each summer the ministry employs about 1,600 firefighters and support crew, and with the new money plans to hire an additional 80 seasonal staff who will be contracted to work longer this summer --- for 100 days instead of 80.

The new money will also go toward:

• an extra $10 million, bringing the total to $60 million a year, for a program that helps local governments and First Nations increase prescribed burns to remove leaves and other fuel from the forest floor;

• increasing the contracts for five water-bomber planes from 100 to 120 days, and adding more helicopters to the ministry's aerial attack team;

• adding new technology, such as drones for fire-mapping and iPads for crews to use in the field to reference maps, and the contracting of air operators licensed to use night-vision goggles to help with the early detection of fires;

• community meetings to be held in areas facing a high risk of fire damage, although the schedule has not yet been finalized.

An additional $13 million over three years has been committed to reforestation and restoration, which can both capture climate-damaging carbon and also reduce wildfire risk.

One of the recommendations stemming from an independent report into the 2017 wildfire season was for the government to build a stronger working relationship with First Nations when it comes to battling blazes. A First Nations firefighter recruitment strategy has been created, but the ministry could not say this week how many Indigenous workers have been hired or trained so far.

The budget increase "means we can potentially be hiring more staff, we can be doing more projects around --- not so much responding to the fires --- but preparing for them, mitigating the effects of them, doing prescribed burns, things like that. Those are all going to be expanded now," Skrepnek said.

Burton, the UNBC professor, believes even more money should be added to the budget to help private land owners with acreages, noting it can cost up to $6,000 a hectare to trim trees and remove surface fuel that can feed fires.

"I think it is a gap in the policies and the support available currently," he said.

Is your home FireSmart?

Scott Zigler, who shared a harrowing tale with Postmedia in 2017 when he drove past burning trees to get his family to safety, said this week that the flames stopped 70 metres short of devouring his house near Spokin Lake, east of Williams Lake.

"I was very fortunate. The next street up lost 12 to 14 houses. And houses across the street were burned," he said.

Zigler has made changes over the last two years to protect his property, including buying house insurance. He has also cut down trees, cleared some land, removed brush around the house, and invested in large containers to hold emergency water. And he has purchased a backhoe to dig ditches and knock down trees if the flames ever come close again.

Some of these ideas are part of the FireSmart program, available online with tips for homeowners on how to reduce the chances of their homes going up in smoke. The tips include removing all ignitable items from within 10 metres of your house, such as objects in your gutters, on the roof, under decks and on the ground. Within 10 to 30 metres, coniferous trees should be thinned, and branches, dry grass and needles should be removed from the ground.

Spring-cleaning season is the perfect time to make these changes, said the Wildfire Service's Skrepnek.

"It could be cleaning out your eavestroughs, if twigs or debris get in there and dry out," he said. "Even the kind of vegetation you plant around the house, there are choices you can make there for less flammable options. Or moving piles of wood away from structures."

The forest ministry encourages residents to follow the FireSmart suggestions, "given the effects of climate change and the increased number of homes being developed in forested areas."

An alarming federal climate-change report released this week revealed Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, and concluded that "higher temperatures in the future will contribute to increased fire potential."

Spye is worried about an abundance of tumble weed that blew into Ashcroft during the dry March, as she fears one discarded cigarette butt could light it all on fire. She has tested the "fireproof" siding on her new house, and actually tried to set it ablaze --- but failed.

"That made me feel secure," she laughed.

She does not want to relive the terrifying scramble she endured in 2017, when her cat refused to leave her house and she had to flee her burning community with very few of her worldly possessions.

"I didn't have a chance to do much. You are running, you are trying to get your pets. You are not thinking straight," she said. "I never thought this would ever happen."