B.C. wildfire damage so far just fraction of last year's total

The area consumed by wildfires in the province so far this season is less than one per cent of the area burned in each of the past two summers, according to the B.C. Wildfire Service.

Since April 1, 466 fires have been recorded in B.C. but just 11,568 hectares burned, more than half of that in the Prince George fire region.

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That's down from 2,117 fires and 1,354,284 hectares burned last year, the worst on record. Last year at this time fires had destroyed more than four times as much forest, according to wildfire service spokeswoman Kyla Fraser.

"Fire activity is quiet right now, especially in the southern half of the province," she said. "We've had rain over the weekend, so fire danger there is very low."

Persistent dry weather across Alaska, Yukon and the northern reaches of the western provinces will likely continue through much of the summer, leading to a greater fire risk, according to Richard Carr of the Canadian Forest Service.

"...Southern B.C. seems reluctant to dry out, so if problems occur, they will likely be in late July and will not likely be as explosive as in the past two summers," he said in an email.

"While much of British Columbia is forecast to have above normal severity, the moist first half of July (except the northwest corner) may not give enough time to result in a severe situation in August," he said.

Since 2009, an average of 400,000 hectares are burned each fire season in B.C. The lowest total in the past decade came in 2011, when just 12,604 hectares burned.

The only fire of note burning in B.C. as of Monday is at Alkali Lake, which consists mainly of holdover fires that have been smouldering underground since last year's massive 121,215-hectare blaze.

As a side benefit, every air quality station in B.C. is forecasting low health risk due to smoke.

A nine-hectare fire that triggered an evacuation alert in Pender Harbour on the Sunshine Coast is in the final stages of mop-up, according to wildfire service information officer Alan Berry.

"They haven't called it completely out yet because there were a couple of areas that are hard to access, but the crews are out," he said. "With precipitation coming, they will wait for some rain and do a final patrol."

Rain on the south coast over the weekend included a "couple of hundred" lightning strikes and at least 10 small fires, maybe more.

"Cloud cover is making detection difficult, but once they lift we should be able to get out with a helicopter or a plane and see if there are any new starts," he said.

Cool weather has definitely helped keep a lid on the damage caused by fires and more rain is the in the forecast this week over much of the province.

"There's always the potential for us to get back to a drying trend and the volume of lightning is a little unusual for us on the coast, so that's a concern," said Berry.

The extended outlook for August and September shows "a high probability of above seasonal temperatures in the southern half of the province, especially on Vancouver Island," according to the monthly fire season bulletin released last week.

About 66 per cent of this year's wildfires have been attributed to human causes, according to the wildfire service. About 70 per cent of last year's wildfires were caused by lightning strikes and 25 per cent by human activity.

The fire danger in B.C.'s northwest corner is rated high to extreme.

"They haven't seen quite as much rain as other parts of the province and they have seen quite a bit of lightning," said Fraser. "That's an area we will have to keep our eyes on, checking to see if any new lighting fires are popping up."

After the disastrous fire seasons in 2017 and 2018, the provincial government increased its firefighting budget by 58 per cent to $101 million a year.

A $60-million Community Resiliency Investment Program was launched last September to provide local governments and First Nations with resources for fire mitigation. To date, 85 projects have been funded, according to the ministry of forests.

B.C. spent $615 million fighting wildfires in 2018.

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