The number of people fined for violating rules designed to prevent wildfires in the province spiked last year, with officers handing out three times as many tickets than a year earlier, according to statistics compiled by the BC Wildfire Service.
The increased enforcement occurred even as the number of fires caused by humans decreased slightly, and as the provincial government promised to crack down on people who violate rules against campfires and other activities, with significantly higher fines that began in April.
The issue took on a new urgency earlier this week, when wildfire officials said at least 10 fires currently burning in the province's northeastern region were likely set deliberately. At the same time, investigators in Alberta have yet to pinpoint the cause of the massive wildfire that forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray last week.
In British Columbia last year, 286 tickets were issued under the Wildfire Act, compared with 95 in 2014. Those numbers haven't been as high since 2010, when 210 tickets were issued during an especially busy wildfire season. At the same same time, there were 617 human-caused fires last year – about a third of all fires – compared with 664 in 2014.
The data provided by the BC Wildfire Service did not break down the nature of the tickets.
In 2012, penalties totalling about $20,000 were issued in seven wildfire cases. The BC Wildfire Service is still assessing penalties for 19 cases in 2013.
Last month, the B.C. government significantly increased fines for fire-related infractions in response to a highly damaging 2015 fire season – when 1,836 wildfires burned about 280,000 hectares and cost the province $277-million. A fire that destroyed 30 homes in the province's Kootenay region was believed to be caused by humans.
On April 1, the fine for ignoring fire restrictions, such as campfire bans, rose to $1,100 – an increase of 218 per cent. Failing to properly dispose of burning substances, such as cigarette butts, will now warrant a ticket of $575.
So far this year, only three tickets have been issued, though the BC Wildfire Service noted most tickets are issued during the peak of fire season in July and August.
In addition to the fines, anyone responsible for starting a wildfire can also be fined for the cost of fighting the blaze. The punishment for causing a wildfire includes a fine as high as $100,000 or up to one year in jail.
Forests Minister Steve Thomson declined an interview request, as did the BC Wildfire Service. The ministry and the agency issued statements saying they hope the increased fines and greater emphasis on prevention and enforcement will help to lower the number of human-caused fires.
Earlier this year, as he introduced legislation to impose the new fines, Mr. Thomson said officials encountered "irresponsible" behaviour last year, including from people he said were interfering with the work of firefighters.
"At many points last year, our firefighting resources were stretched to the limits," he told a news conference in March.
While the province issues tickets to people caught in risky behaviour, determining who is responsible for a major wildfire can be difficult.
After a fire in Barriere, north of Kamloops, caused millions of dollars in damage in 2003, Michael Barre was found guilty of accidentally starting the blaze and was fined $3,000. The same year, a Kamloops resident was also found to have started a fire, and was ordered to pay the Forests Ministry $10,000 in restitution, in addition to a fine of $1,150.
The BC Wildfire Service said there were 37 active fires in the province as of Wednesday. Since the beginning of April, a total of 228 fires have burned up nearly 78,000 hectares. Currently, the largest fire covers 59,000 hectares and straddles the British Columbia-Alberta border. A number of residents in the area were briefly under an evacuation order, but are now under an evacuation alert.