Campfires, cigarettes, flares and car accidents are some of the ways humans have likely started more than 400 wildfires in British Columbia this season.
As wildfires blaze across the province, the BC Wildfire Service says many of them have been avoidable. Despite efforts to spread the word about fire bans and other restrictions, fire information officer Ryan Turcot says many people still aren’t getting the message.
“It’s important to note that every time we run into a human-caused wildfire, that’s a wildfire that didn’t have to happen,” Turcot said.
“These human-caused wildfires during periods of heightened fire activity can in some cases divert critical resources away from the natural caused wildfires that we can’t prevent.”
On average, the Wildfire Service says 40 per cent of fires over the past 10 years, or 666 per year, have been caused by humans.
This season has seen an unusual amount of lightning activity, which has skewed that ratio, Turcot said.
Since April 1, humans have been responsible for starting more than 420 of about 1,950 wildfires in British Columbia, although the service said it’s too early to be more specific about the causes since many are still under investigation.
The Wildfire Service lumps human activities that spark fires into 10 broad categories, including smoking, electrical, and structure or vehicle fires that spread.
“If you were to really break it down, there are hundreds of different ways that wildfires start,” Turcot said.
About 23 per cent of fires started by humans fall under the broad umbrella of “incendiary devices,” which include matches, lighters, flare guns and others. About 22 per cent spread from campfires. And about the same number begin with open fires, which are larger fires that include burn barrels, pile burning and large-scale industrial burning.
Turcot said it’s important to educate yourself about fire bans and other restrictions before entering the backcountry.
In response to last year’s record-setting fire season, the Wildfire Service says on its website that extraordinary measures were taken to help prevent human-caused fires.
Off-road vehicle prohibitions were implemented in the Cariboo, Kamloops and southeast fire centres and full backcountry closures were implemented in two areas. Campfires were also banned across most areas of the province throughout the summer.
In April 2016, the province increased fines for a variety of wildfire-related violation tickets. Fines include $1,150 for lighting a fire against regulations or restrictions, $575 for failing to comply with a fire control order and $383 to $575 for failing to report a fire.
More than 1.2 million hectares of land burned in 2017, costing more than $568 million in fire suppression and displacing roughly 65,000 people.
An independent review of last year’s fire season recommended strengthening the public’s understanding of risks and personal responsibilities, and providing a summary of incentives to encourage public participation in preparing for emergencies.
“The most prominent communications theme referenced was the need to better communicate human-started fire considerations such as the direct impacts of negligence and fines for cigarettes in high-risk areas,” the report said in a summary of comments it received through open houses.
Comments also called for more public awareness campaigns and more education on FireSmart, a program that teaches prevention tactics.
In an email, Turcot said the province it working toward making FireSmart activities a common practice across British Columbia, including providing more courses to educate local governments, First Nations, community members and emergency staff. It already does paid advertising campaigns on radio, TV and online.
But changing human behaviour is challenge.
“There isn’t one silver bullet solution to reducing the number of human-caused fires, given that human-caused fires are attributable to a very wide array of activities and circumstances, so it is important for the BC Wildfire Service to continue educating the public about wildfire prevention as it relates to all human activities that can result in unnecessary wildfires,” Turcot said.