After refusing to do so for days following calls from municipal and regional governments and politicians, the provincial government has finally declared a provincial state of emergency due to ongoing wildfires and extreme risk of more blazes.
Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth made the announcement on Tuesday afternoon (July 20). The state of emergency will go into effect at midnight on Wednesday.
Farnworth said it was a meeting late Monday night that changed his mind on declaring a state of emergency, which he refused to do just 24 hours earlier in a written response to Thompson-Nicola Regional District chair Ken Gillis, who, on behalf of the board, had called on the province to make the declaration.
Under a provincial state of emergency, the province has additional powers, including acquiring land or property to prevent or alleviate the effects of the emergency, controlling or prohibiting travel within the province, entry into any land or building without a warrant, removal of trees, structures and crops, compelling qualified people to help fight the fires and fixing prices or rationing supplies.
Farnworth said he hopes the “extraordinary measures” available under the Emergency Act will not be necessary.
The province has seen 1,145 wildfires since the start of the season in April. Of those, 299 remain active. To date, more than 300,000 hectares have burned, which is about 200,000 hectares more than have burned, on average, by this time of the year over the past 10 years.
Engaged in fighting the fire are 3,180 firefighters and staff, including 1,080 contractors and 135 people from outside B.C. More help is on the way, too, including 100 firefighters from Mexico, expected to arrive on July 24.
That is “welcome help” according to Cliff Chapman, the director of provincial operations with the BC Wildfire Service, who said the province is expecting another 500 personnel over the next 10 days.
That help will be needed, given the daunting forecast that will only aggravate existing fires and bring new starts, as well.
Chapman said B.C. is expecting sub-tropical weather coming in the from the south that will bring strong winds, lightning and little or no moisture to the Interior. He said additional fires are expected.
“Our control lines will be challenged and there’s the potential to see significant fire behaviour across the province,” Chapman said.
The Kamloops Fire Centre has the most active fires out of any of the six divisions within B.C., accounting for 116 of the active fires as of Tuesday afternoon.
Fourteen of those fires have been designated as fires of note by the BC Wildfire Service, which uses that descriptor for fires that are highly visible or post a potential threat to public safety.
The largest fire near Kamloops is the Sparks Lake wildfire, which was last measured at more than 47,000 hectares in size. That fire is threatening hundreds of properties in the Deadman River Valley, including on the Skeetchestn Indian Band reserve, and areas north of Kamloops Lake as far north as Young Lake.
Areas under evacuation order or alert extend even farther north, into the Cariboo Regional District and all the way to 100 Mile House, due to other fires also burning in the area, including a 400-hectare blaze just north of Chasm and the 20,000-hectare Flat Lake wildfire.
Not far to the southwest, near Ashcroft, the Tremont Creek wildfire is also posing a serious threat. That fire was last measured at 11,000 hectares and has spread east nearly to Walhachin, where 60 properties are under evacuation order.
A strip of land north of the river and a large block of land south of Walhachin are also under evacuation alert, including all properties in Savona and Thompson River Estates. That notice has been in place since July 14.
The White Rock Lake fire burning near Westwold has grown to nearly 4,400 hectares at last estimate by the BC Wildfire Service. There, challenges with steep terrain, high winds and smoky skies have prevented the use of air tankers to battle the blaze.
There, 213 properties remain on alert, with another 13 under orders to evacuate.
Another fire threatening properties is the Embleton Mountain wildfire burning along Heffley-Louis Creek Road to the west of Sun Peaks, between Heffley Lake and Whitecroft.
The Embleton fire has grown to nearly 1,000 hectares and more than 150 properties are under an evacuation order. Another 170 properties in the surrounding area, and the village of Sun Peaks, remain on evacuation alert due to that fire.
Another fire southwest of Kamloops is the Durand Lake wildfire, which has not seen as much growth as others in the region. That fire has left 24 properties on evacuation order that immediately surround the fire and another 169 properties on evacuation alert north of Logan Lake.