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Wildfire warning for Victoria Day long weekend

With temperatures soaring above seasonal averages across B.C., the fire risk is quickly increasing and the province is preparing for the worst, while hoping for the best
Cliff Chapman of the BC Wildfire Service speaks to media in Kamloops on May 16, 2023, with Forest Minister Bruce Ralston looks on.

Ahead of the Victoria Day long weekend, the BC Wildfire Service is warning that the current dry and hot conditions are creating an environment ripe for fire — even in the southern half of the province.

Director of wildfire operations Cliff Chapman provided an update to media outside the Provincial Wildfire Coordination Centre in Kamloops on Tuesday morning (May 16).

With temperatures soaring above seasonal averages across B.C., Chapman said the fire risk is quickly increasing and the province is preparing for the worst, while hoping for the best.

“Given what we’ve seen across B.C. in the past decade, in particular in the past five years, I guess, to be candid, I’m not surprised by much anymore. That’s why we have to turn to preparing for the worst and, ideally, the worst does not happen,” he said.

The recent heat wave is worsening the fire situation in the north of the province, where two fire complexes, each composed of multiple fires, are wreaking havoc and threatening Fort St. John, with residents in the city of 21,000 on evacuation alert.

“The fire hazard is significant and extreme in the northeast of the province," Chapman said. "Slowly, but surely, we’re seeing that hazard increase all the way down to the south to the U.S. border, including the Coastal Fire Centre."

There are no active wildfires in the Kamloops Fire Centre.

Across the province, there have been 206 wildfires to date (since Jan. 1) and most of those (85) have been in the Prince George Fire Centre. While the number of fires to date is only 44 more than the 10-year average, the number of hectares burned far exceeds the average of 11,000, with more than 50,000 hectares razed so far this year.

While spring fire activity is nothing unusual for B.C., the current record-breaking temperatures have prompted the BC Wildfire Service to call for caution ahead of the long weekend, after which the current high pressure ridge is expected to break.

The outlook of the fire season beyond next week is hard to predict, Chapman said, aside from the most prominent indicator, which is the amount of rainfall throughout the month of June, historically the wettest month of the year in Kamloops.

“Unfortunately, when a ridge breaks down, you also see high winds and the potential for thunderstorms, and it doesn’t always come with precipitation on the first day. What that means for B.C. is that we have a high likelihood of seeing fire starts, really across the province, depending on where that lightning tracks if it shows up on the holiday Monday,” Chapman said.

Chapman urged people to use the BC Wildfire Service app and the dial-in number to report potential new starts.

“Please report any smoke you see, even if you think it’s already been reported. We appreciate that information,” he said.

British Columbians can dial *5555 or 1-800-663-5555 or use the app to report smoke.

Open burning (category 2 and category 3 fires) will be prohibited after May 18 across the province. That means fires exceeding two metres in height and three metres in width will not be allowed.

A campfire ban is already in place in the Prince George Fire Centre, which spans the upper northeast quadrant of the province, and Chapman said further bans may be put in place after the long weekend if conditions warrant such action.

“We’re trying to find balance between allowing safe, appropriate activity in every centre except the Northeast, but that’s not to say by the weekend we may not shift to a campfire ban across the province or looking at it next week,” he said.

Other early preparations by the BC Wildfire Service include the hiring of 113 full-time staff last fall to support preparedness and response efforts and the more recent hiring of 330 new recruits, which Chapman said is about 130 bodies beyond the typical new recruit hiring.