Cooler weather systems and rain in much of Canada are expected to help firefighters tackle an unprecedented wildfire season, but it hasn’t been enough in B.C. where an out-of-control blaze is threatening to close a key highway that links communities in the northeast to the rest of the province and Yukon.
The second-largest wildfire in B.C.’s recorded history, the Donnie Creek blaze, is close to 490,000 hectares in size and just two kilometres away from the Alaska Highway – Highway 97 – between the communities of Fort St. John and Fort Nelson. Officials estimate the blaze could cross the highway as soon as Thursday morning.
It is one of 458 active fires across Canada, about half of which are burning out of control.
Closing of the main route would mean a more than 1,700-kilometre detour for the 3,400 people living in the small town of Fort Nelson. It would also be the second main highway to be closed in the province because of encroaching forest fires.
Highway 4, which connects the community of Port Alberni to Vancouver Island’s West Coast and includes end-of-the-highway tourist haven Tofino, has been closed since June 6 and is only expected to begin partly opening next weekend.
Fire officials on Wednesday said rainfall this week has proven too meagre to make any serious impact on the 81 wildfires burning throughout British Columbia. Cliff Chapman, the BC Wildfire Service’s director of operations, said scattered showers are forecast in various regions of the province in the coming days, but that any given weather station would be lucky to see as much as 10 to 20 millimetres.
That moisture may briefly help, Mr. Chapman said, but it won’t be enough to smother the risk heading into July and August. “Coming out of the winter with droughts, breaking temperature records in May, and doing it again in June, we’re in a tricky spot,” he said. “We need sustained rainfall.”
Throughout the province, 2,750 people are under evacuation orders and nearly 1,400 have been warned that they may need to leave on short notice as flames and smoke inch closer to their homes and communities. Mr. Chapman said B.C. has enough of its own resources for now, but tentative requests have been made for federal and international aid should the situation worsen.
A 20-person incident management team is scheduled to arrive this weekend from the U.S. to provide some relief.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday that Canada will continue to lean on foreign firefighting crews to combat the country’s worst wildfire season in decades, and in the years to come as the risk intensifies. He said that the goodwill extends both ways, as Canadian fire personnel will help other countries as needed.
“From Northern Hemisphere to Southern Hemisphere, from one region of the world to another, the fire seasons aren’t always aligned and that allows for a travelling of resources that is part of how we’re going to make sure we’re protecting communities all around the world,” Mr. Trudeau said to reporters after meeting with Armed Forces members at the base in Bagotville, in Quebec’s Saguenay region.
“In terms of international firefighters, it’s something that we count on during our fire seasons, but the same way our international friends and partners count on Canadian firefighters during their fire seasons.”
The Prime Minister said extreme weather events, such as wildfires, are expected to become more frequent owing to the effects of climate change. He was asked whether Canada needs to augment its fleet of water bombers used to fight fires and he said resources must be bolstered at many levels to address this sobering reality.
“Yes, we are talking about planes, but we are also talking about more training for the population, for firefighters, for the military,” Mr. Trudeau said.
Meanwhile, about 100 Portuguese and 140 Spanish firefighters are touching down in Quebec City to join French and American fire crews to battle 130 wildfires burning across Quebec. In total, about 5,000 firefighting personnel from multiple countries have been deployed to Canada and more are expected to arrive from Chile and Costa Rica in the coming days.
Officials on Wednesday said that there hasn’t been enough precipitation so far to extinguish the wildfire danger in Quebec. The province’s fire protection agency said a wildfire burning in the northwest continues to threaten the small city of Lebel-sur-Quévillon, with a population of 2,200 who have not been allowed to return home.
Further west, about 14,000 people are still displaced from their homes in Alberta, as of late Tuesday. Rain was in the forecast for a large portion of Western Canada on Wednesday, along with thunderstorms and a risk of lightning and tornadoes.
Air quality has improved across Canada with the changing weather but several cities in Alberta with intense blazes nearby were expected to be dealing with wildfire smoke. Twenty-two of the province’s 76 active fires were considered out of control, with another 17 being held.
With reports from The Canadian Press