It is obvious to everyone involved in the forest even superficially that this year’s fire season has come on very early and seems like it will be severe. Forest industry veterans say there has never been such extended hot, dry weather this early in the year. Indeed, mainstream media reports this week indicate that 62-thousand hectares of British Columbia forest have burned in wildfires in 2015, nearly four times the ten-year average for this time of year.
This means BC’s Wildfire Management Branch has already spent more than $52 million on firefighting this year, 80 per cent of the $63 million allotted for 2015.
By comparison, Chief provincial fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek told CBC in September that 1,424 fires had consumed more than 3,590 square kilometres of forest in the 2014 season.
Skrepnek said the provincial government spent more than $293 million fighting fires last year, compared to $122 million spent fighting 1,857 fires in 2013.
John Betts, Executive Director of the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association said to Madison’s by email Thursday, “[This] is pretty much what we have been saying all along. The only difference is that the types of fires we forecast would start happening now actually are. Meanwhile the conditions that create these fires have only continued to gain strength across the landscape. Considering the alignment between fuels, our very modest fuels management strategy, and the weather lately there is the feeling that if the ignition foot drops we are in for it.”
And “in for it” we are. A quick Google search pulled up seemingly endless pages of forest fires burning from Alaska and Yukon, through BC and Alberta, to the northwest US and especially California.
Of the more than 518 wildfires reported in BC since April 1, the most immediate concern was the Cisco Road fire near Lytton, where an evacuation alert was in effect Thursday. That fire, which is estimated to be 1,885 hectares, is considered 70-per-cent contained, though it still remains a threat to nearby buildings.
The Elaho fire, nearly 70 kilometres west of Pemberton, was estimated to be 700 hectares and is considered 40-per-cent contained. The fire is on steep, difficult-to-access terrain, though so far it’s not considered a threat to any people or homes.
Further north, the Little Bobtail Lake fire near Prince George, which has been burning since early May and prompted an evacuation alert affecting 80 people, is considered fully contained.
Canada and US Forest Fires
Yet more north, George Maratos, spokesperson for Yukon Wildland Fire management, told CBC Monday there were 123 forest fires in Yukon already this season. That’s compared to 32 forest fires during all of last year.
Meanwhile, Alberta’s local wildfire information officer, Robyn Haugen, told Fort McMurray Today on Thursday that 24 new wildfires broke out in the Fort McMurray area of northern Alberta since Wednesday morning.
According to federal government climate data, weather stations at the Fort McMurray airport haven’t recorded any precipitation since June 18. Meanwhile, the temperature reached 29.9 degrees on the 24th, said Fort McMurray Today.
Parts of the Prairies and BC have gone weeks without substantial rainfall, causing a dramatic increase in wildfire activity, according to the Weather Network Thursday. As of June 25, Alberta had seen 1,011 wildfires in 2015, compared to the five-year average of 710 wildfires per year.
“Throughout May and June, Vancouver, BC, saw an astonishingly low amount of rain,” says Weather Network meteorologist Erin Wenckstern. “The area reported under 17 mm, when it should be more along the lines of 90 millimetres. And it doesn’t stop there: Tofino, BC, hasn’t even scraped past 30 mm for May and June – with the average total closer to 300 millimetres.”
Madison’s reached out to another expert, Robert Gray, well-known BC Fire Ecologist.
“The BC government has spent approximately $2.2 billion on earthquake preparedness, which has a low probability of occurrence, and $70 million in 2014 alone on flood mitigation, but nothing on wildfire mitigation,” detailed Gray in a phone interview.
This is an alarming lack of funding given the quantifiable increase in both volume and severity of wildfires over the past ten years. Add to that the reduction in investment by the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations in forest management generally over the past 15 years and the sense of alarm increases palpably.
One only has to look at the under-managed, under-utilized lands of the US Forest Service to recognize that the immediate savings of a lack of forest fire prescription end up costing much, much more money later.
“[The basic accounting] doesn’t even include cost to human health and loss of other values,” said Gray.
As if more proof were needed, a wildfire in northern California that has grown to more than 60 square kilometres in hazardous and inaccessible terrain is approaching an increasing number of structures and affecting travel, officials said Thursday. No structures have been damaged, but the mountain town of Markleeville, CA, remained on standby for possible evacuations. Several campgrounds have been evacuated and two highways have been closed.
Still in California, a huge forest fire in a remote area of the San Bernardino Mountains, about 240 kilometres east of Los Angeles, was partially contained as of Thursday morning. That fire was holding steady at about 70 square kilometres as firefighters attacked the flames with a fleet of water-dropping aircraft. Those flames forced several hundred people to leave.
Another blaze near Santa Margarita in central California burned two homes, four mobile homes, and two recreational vehicles. The fire burned less than eight square kilometres, along with 10 other buildings, seven vehicles, a boat and a trailer. It was mostly contained.
Again in the north, intensifying wildfires in Alaska have led to evacuations in several parts of the state, including a tiny village where residents fled on boats. A firefighter working on one blaze was treated for minor injuries from a bear bite after he encountered the animal, fire managers said.
A small fire just outside the Yukon River village of Nulato, AK, prompted evacuations Monday evening from the Athabascan community of 250 people. Other wildfires have prompted evacuations of residents in threatened rural areas.
And in southwestern Oregon, a wildfire scorching a remote part of the state has grown to 2,000 hectares, but containment improved to almost 50 per cent. Incident commander Doug Johnson said Thursday fire lines will be tested in the coming days by a heatwave expected to bring triple digit temperatures to the region.
In neighbouring Washington state, a wildfire burning in a remote area of Olympic National Park, on the Olympic Peninsula, scorched more than 2.5 square kilometres. Fire managers said Tuesday that the blaze, which is burning in a wilderness area about 20 kilometres north of Quinault, continues to spread north and northeast.
Gray points to a recently-published position paper, Reduce Wildfire Risks or We’ll Continue to Pay More for Fire Disasters (available here: http://fireecologyjournal.org/reduce-wildfire-risks/) by the world’s three preeminent fire science associations — the Association for Fire Ecology, the International Association of Wildland Fire, and The Nature Conservancy — which demonstrates that the true cost of wildfires is typically two to 32 times the suppression cost. The addition of long-term indirect and additional costs include human health effects, loss of business income, reduced property values, and erosion mitigation.
For example, the 2012 Rim Fire in California cost US$127 million to suppress; however, long-term indirect and additional costs are expected to push the total cost of the fire to US$1.8 billion, say the paper’s authors.