As summer months approach, the BC Wildfire Service is hoping to reduce the number of human-caused wildfires so its staff are not put at further risk during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Forests Minister Doug Donaldson said in 2017, about 27 per cent of all wildfires were caused by people, while in 2018, 40 per cent of the season's fires were human-caused.
To that end, the wildfire service implemented category 2 and category 3 burning restrictions earlier than usual this year — in April, as opposed to June last year. Category 2 and 3 restrictions include open fires and fireworks, but do not include campfires.
The impetus to lower the number of human-caused blazes stems from the ongoing pandemic, with the wildfire service hoping to reduce the need for its 1,700 firefighters to gather and travel.
In an update to media issued on Thursday, Donaldson said the wildfire service is operating under WorksafeBC guidelines and will continue to do so in the coming wildfire season.
Some of the new protocols in place include changes to how fire camps will operate, including smaller camps, hand-washing stations and a switch from five-person tents to single tents only.
The wildfire service will not conduct controlled burns it would normally be doing at this time of year to reduce the amount of natural fire fuel.
"It's an unusual move on our behalf, but a necessary one at this point," said Jody Lucius, communications and engagement superintendent for the BC Wildfire Service.
Lucius said the decision was made to ensure wildfire crews are available to respond to wildfires and to reduce the amount of smoke in the air due to the risks to people dealing with respiratory illnesses, such as COVID-19.
The wildfire service has also expanded its aerial fleet, which now includes 20 air tankers and eight bird dog (spotter) aircraft, amounting to a 15 per cent increase in ability to deliver fire retardant and 150 per cent more water-skimmer capacity.
That move was made possible with an increased budget from the province — this year amounting to $136 million. That's an increase of $35 million over 2019 and $73 million more than the 2018 budget.
Notably, however, actual spending on wildfires by the province has typically gone far above and beyond budgeted amounts when necessary.
Another change includes how the wildfire service will interact with the media, barring face-to-face interviews, helicopter tours of fire sites and restricting access to where crews are working.
While the springs and summers of 2017 and 2018 produced a large number of fires and the resultant smoke, leading to mass evacuations of communities in the B.C. Interior, 2019 was a relatively quiet year for blazes.
In 2019, there were fewer than 800 fires recorded, with about 21,000 hectares burned.
There were nine wildfires of note, eight evacuation alerts and two evacuation orders, with the province spending about $121 million. Last year, there were no campfire bans enacted.
In 2018, there were 2,117 fires that burned 1.3-million hectares. Total cost was $615 million. There were 66 evacuation orders. Of those 2,117 fires, 25 per cent were human-caused (including trains) and 70 per cent were lightning-caused. Five per cent of the fires do not have an affixed cause.
The 10-year average, from 2008 through 2017, is 1,666 fires, with 43 per cent being human caused and 57 per cent being caused by lightning.
Recent years that are similar to the relatively quiet fire season of 2019 include 2016 and 2011.
In 2016 — a year in which there was no campfire ban issued in the Kamloops Fire Centre — there were 1,050 fires covering 100,000 hectares, with a final firefighting bill of $129 million.
In 2011 — another year without a campfire ban —there were 653 fires spanning 12,600 hectares and carrying a firefighting bill of $53.5 million.