More than 100 wildfires still not considered out after record wildfire season in British Columbia

Ashley Joannou, The Canadian Press

Published Tuesday, January 16, 2024 5:36 am EST

More than 100 wildfires are still listed as active in British Columbia thanks to a combination of a busy wildfire season, extreme drought and generally warmer, drier conditions during December.

Forrest Tower of the BC Wildfire Service said that while it’s not unusual for some fires to burn during the winter, that number is usually around a couple dozen, not the 106 that were listed as active on New Year’s Day.

“In the last 10 years, there were a couple of years where it was zero, but they were years where we really didn’t have much of a fire season,” he said.

“Most of the time we will have, I would say, 15 or less, that would be the kind of average, if we look year after year on the first of January.”

The 2023 fire season burned more than 28,000 square kilometers of British Columbia, breaking records and forcing thousands of people to flee. Hundreds of homes were destroyed in the Okanagan and Shuswap regions.

Tower said July and August are typically the busiest months for firefighting in British Columbia, giving crews enough time at the end of their contract to tackle smaller fires that didn’t require immediate attention.

But the large number of more remote fires in 2023 meant that crews were not able to control each fire until the last day of their extended contracts in November, he said.

About 80 per cent of the fires still considered active are in the hard-to-access northeastern region of British Columbia, which is experiencing extreme drought.

Dry conditions mean fires burn deep into the ground, particularly in the peat or bog conditions that exist in the northeast, Tower said. That makes them even harder to put out when firefighters can reach them.

“It’s not necessarily that they’re out of control, that they’re moving and growing. It’s just the depth of some of these fires and their size. It takes a ton of manual labor to dig deep enough or access some of these more remote fires.” “Tower said.

“So the work needed to completely extinguish them, so we can call them in, is quite (difficult) in some areas.”

Tower said some of the fires listed as active are small “spot” fires that may have extinguished themselves, but the service has not been able to confirm this.

When there aren’t enough people to go around, the wildfire service depends on there being enough precipitation before it can confidently label a fire as out.

The rain and snow did not come.

The province’s latest drought update for 2023, released in late November, lists eight of British Columbia’s 34 watersheds in the two highest levels of risk for adverse drought impacts.

The northeast corner of British Columbia, which includes the Fort Nelson and Peace regions, remains in the highest level of drought where adverse impacts are almost certain.

The BC River Forecast Center said that as of Jan. 1, provincial snowpack was extremely low, averaging about 56 percent of normal, with warmer temperatures and less precipitation between Jan. 1 October and December 31.

Active winter fires rarely have visible smoke, Tower said. Instead, burning them underground allows them to remain protected and burn longer.

“There’s enough energy there and enough fuel available to retain that heat, potentially through the winter or just longer than normal,” he said.

Some underground fires, often called “zombie fires,” can reappear in the spring if conditions are right.

Tower said that may be the case for parts of the massive Donnie Creek fire in the northeast, which grew to become the largest wildfire ever recorded in British Columbia in June, when it surpassed 5,300 square kilometers.

“If we continue to see very low or abnormally low snowpack and then a warm spring, I would say in some of those larger fires, it’s very possible we’ll see (outbreaks) occur again,” he said.

Lori Daniels, a professor in the Department of Forestry and Conservation Sciences at the University of British Columbia, said the province should be prepared for more years with 100 or more fires in January.

He said four of the last seven fire seasons have approached or exceeded one million hectares burned.

“That doesn’t mean we’re still going to cross the million hectare mark every year, but it means we’re already in the pattern where this will become more common rather than unusual,” he said.

Daniels said she and others monitoring the fires are worried about what the next season will look like.

‘It was a hot and dry summer. “We had a drought leading up to the 2023 fire season, we’re still in this drought scenario and there’s little indication on the horizon that that’s going to change dramatically,” she said.

The wildfire service is still collecting data before making predictions about what the 2024 wildfire season could look like, Tower said.

For now, he warns that less snow cover could make fire-damaged areas more accessible this winter and that people should be alert for dangers, including falling trees.

“Last summer so many hectares were burned that there is still great danger in those areas.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2024.

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