As she toured a fire zone in her Okanagan riding, Premier Christy Clark heaped praise on the more than 2,000 people fighting hundreds of wildfires in British Columbia and warned there could be worse to come for the province because of climate change.
"I am mostly concerned that … the forest fire season won't give us a break and that we're going to see more homes threatened, more people's livelihoods threatened, more forest resources lost," Ms. Clark said Wednesday. She said B.C.'s extreme fire season has been bad, but it appears to be part of a longer-term trend rather than an anomaly. So far this year B.C. has had 1,300 fires, which have burned more than 295,000 hectares – far exceeding the 10-year average for the same time period of 708 fires and 41,000 hectares.
"Climate change has altered the terrain and it's made us much more vulnerable to fire," she said. "The earth is very dry and I think that we have to be planning with the knowledge that this isn't going to be an unusual year … these things are going to happen more often … we have to be more ready for that."
The province budgeted $63-million to fight fires this year but has already surpassed that, spending $143-million so far. "We could be at $300- to $400-million by the end of the season if this keeps up. You never want to have to spend more money than you need to but we're going to spend as much as is needed," Ms. Clark said, as she visited crews fighting the Westside Road blaze on Okanagan Lake.
"If flying over fire teaches you anything, it's how hard these men and women work and how much risk they take every single minute that they are out there. It's incredibly difficult what they do," she said.
The 430-hectare Westside Road fire is relatively small, but it has raised alarms because it is burning in a residential area near Kelowna, bringing back memories of the Okanagan Mountain firestorm that suddenly swept into the city in 2003, destroying more than 200 homes.
Some 70 properties are currently under evacuation orders on Westside Road and as Ms. Clark saw for herself, spot fires are in some places burning dangerously close to homes.
On Tuesday, fire crews trained to protect buildings camped overnight in the area. On Wednesday, two helicopters and five tanker aircraft along with ground crews tried to contain the blaze, which has been leaping to life during the day when winds typically whip through the valley.
Ms. Clark said it's important fire fighters know "how grateful we all are" for the work they do and the risks they take.
"I think if every British Columbian could get a chance to come and say thank you, they would," she said. "I think most of us would never have the courage to do what they do. … You know some of these guys are carrying cans of gas and an axe into a burning area to try to do a prescribed fire. That's courage – and they are taking those risks on behalf of all of us."
Kevin Skrepnek, B.C.'s top fire information officer, said Wednesday 254 fires were actively burning in the province, including 43 that started Tuesday. Most of the new fires were caused by lightning, but about 40 per cent of the season's blazes over all have been started by humans.
Mr. Skrepnek said he was not aware of anyone being charged for starting fires so far this season.
The government has begun a review of the fines that can be imposed on those who cause forest fires with irresponsible campfires or by discarding cigarette butts.
Mr. Skrepnek said the fire risk in B.C. is currently worse in the south than in the north because of weather.
Some rain is expected in the southern interior over the weekend, but Mr. Skrepnek said next week could see a return to the hot, dry weather that has brought B.C. its worst fire season in years.