With wildfire season looming, June's dry weather has B.C. communities on edge

Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell said his community is on edge, anticipating what could be another record-breaking fire season. Across B.C., in communities that were hard-hit during the record-breaking 2017 and 2018 wildfire season, the mood is similarly tense.

"Nothing is normal anymore," Blackwell told Postmedia on Monday. "The behaviour of wildfire can be so dramatic that it has scared a lot of people into a different level of anxiety."

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That mood -- anxiety, foreboding -- is exacerbated by June's low rainfall in the area.

"It's dry," said Blackwell. So dry the earth is already hydrophobic: water bounces off the soil and trees are already "standing red, dead."

The community, situated 125 kilometres north of Kamloops, started preparing earlier than ever this year. By February, Blackwell and his associates were running tabletop exercises, prepping emergency scenarios, and fire crews were practicing with new water cannons.

"We are the lightning strike capital of B.C. so there's a lot of risk here," said Blackwell.

In the Stellako region on the western edge of Fraser Lake, former tribal chief and hereditary chief David Luggi, said his family was on evacuation alert for about two weeks last summer, their belongings packed into a U-haul. This year Luggi isn't anticipating as much wildfire in the region because there's not much left to burn, although they've already dealt with a smaller fire east of the Fraser Lake township that sparked after someone cleared their yard and burned rubbish.

Luggi said locals are now dealing with a "direct economic hit" as a result of the fires.

"The fire path destroyed pretty much everything, and got so hot it burnt off the topsoil. When you have that situation, another situation will follow. Rain causes an ashy silt to run off into the lakes and rivers, into the clay and into the lake. The water gets muddy ... the water folks call it turbidity. It takes oxygen out of the water, and fish need that oxygen," said Luggi.

The annual the mid-August Stellako salmon run will be affected as well as the Stuart Lake salmon run. "The Takla Nation depend on that run and those salmon runs will be impacted," said Luggi.

It will take a commitment from both sides of the government to deal with the impact.

"Canfor is already cutting back shifts at mills in our area, closing from two to four weeks this summer," said Luggi. "It's a combination of the anticipated drop in inventory, the market prices and then add the fire into it."

Fire Information Officer Hannah Swift said the province is preparing, and has added additional resources in the northwest fire centre that runs along the west coast from Endako, and from the Yukon border to Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, and the Prince George fire centre covering the central and northeast regions of the province.

As of Monday, there were 44 fires burning in the province. Twenty nine of those fires are under control, including a new fire in Taylor Flats near Sproat Lake in the Port Alberni area.

Although things are under control at this time, Swift said the lack of rain and lack of rain in the forecast means fires will come earlier this year.

The province has spent some $40 million on wildfires since April 1, with much of those resources being directed to Alberta. The B.C. Wildlife Service has 1,600 firefighters and support staff ready, with 160 contract positions open, and they've extended the contract length to 100 days, from 80, to deal with the coming season.

"We are not letting 2017 and 2018, record years for hectares burned, set the bar," said Swift. "But it could happen again."

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