News Local

'This is going to be a long battle:' No end in sight to wildfires ravaging B.C. interior

Graeme Hamilton

Fort McMurray residents Crystal Purcell, 32, gives a handful of gift cards to Tamara Laverdiere, 35, as they load a trailer with donated supplies intended for fire halls and evacuation centres in B.C. on Saturday, July 8, 2017. Fort McMurray residents are pitching in to help people displaced by the B.C. wildfires by donating supplies ranging from water and Gatorade to eye drops and sunscreen. (Cullen Bird/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network)

Fort McMurray residents Crystal Purcell, 32, gives a handful of gift cards to Tamara Laverdiere, 35, as they load a trailer with donated supplies intended for fire halls and evacuation centres in B.C. on Saturday, July 8, 2017. Fort McMurray residents are pitching in to help people displaced by the B.C. wildfires by donating supplies ranging from water and Gatorade to eye drops and sunscreen. (Cullen Bird/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network)

Until Friday, it had been a quiet season for the British Columbia Wildfire Service, with staff busier helping with flood relief than fighting fires.

But after two weeks of intense heat and dry conditions in the province’s interior, all that changed Friday when a system of dry lightning moved through central B.C.

Randy Worsley, chief of the Wildwood Fire Department north of Williams Lake, said he was at the fire hall Friday when he saw a flash of lightning, literally out of the blue.

“I saw lightning come down, and there were no clouds,” he said.

Before the day was out, 140 fires had flared up across the province, the government had declared a state of emergency, and Worsley and his crew of volunteer firefighters were battling flames that surged within 10 metres of one home.

“We went right in and knocked it back,” Worsley said Sunday by phone during a break. “Our objective is to preserve as many houses as possible, which we’ve done very well so far … We haven’t lost a structure yet.”

With more than 220 fires burning in B.C.’s southern and central interior as of Sunday afternoon, including more than a dozen considered an immediate threat to communities, not everyone has been as fortunate.

John Ranta, Mayor of Cache Creek, said fire had destroyed at least five houses, 30 trailer homes and two hangars at a regional airport. Provincial officials estimate that 7,000 people have been forced from their homes by fires that show no sign of abating.

“Friday was really the tipping point when we had a fairly significant weather system move through,” said Kevin Skrepnek, the province’s chief fire information officer.

“It brought wind to most parts of the province. That was a key, critical challenge we had. But it also brought a significant amount of dry lightning particularly to central B.C., and that’s certainly what touched off the vast majority of new fires we are getting.”

Skrepnek said not all of the fires started naturally.

Conditions are dry enough that a cigarette butt, an untended campfire or a spark from an off-road vehicle could spell disaster. The province has begun closing provincial parks in affected areas and issued a campfire ban for southern B.C.

“We’re definitely getting human-caused fires as well, and that’s particularly galling right now, given how intense it is,” Skrepnek said.

In Kamloops, outgoing Premier Christy Clark met with evacuees and emergency officials Sunday and announced $100 million in relief funding. She warned that the situation could worsen.

“We are in many ways just at the beginning of the worst part of the fire season,” she said.

“We watch the weather, we watch the wind and we pray for rain. But our prayers aren’t always answered in these things, so we need to be there to support people in the meantime, because there are hundreds and hundreds of people who are scared to death right now.”

In Lac La Hache, Deb Bertand and her husband are living under an evacuation alert in case the fire, which so far has stayed on the other side of the lake, moves their way.

“Especially after what happened in Fort McMurray, we were very, very scared here on Friday when the power went out.

"It was very hot in the house, you could smell smoke everywhere, and everyone around us was being evacuated,” she said. “It just takes one hot ash and then our whole side is gone.”

Skrepnek said the Wildfire Service’s 1,000 firefighters are all involved in the effort along with crews from forestry companies.

A call has gone out for 300 additional firefighters and support staff from other provinces, who are expected to begin arriving as early as Monday.

But what he called “incredibly aggressive fire behaviour” means efforts are focused on saving property and keeping key highways open as opposed to bringing the fires under control.

Aircraft are dumping fire retardant to protect structures, bulldozer crews are creating fire barriers and crews are using controlled burns to deprive the wildfires of fuel.

Ultimately, just as natural forces ignited the majority of the fires, it will take a force of nature to extinguish them.

“We would need an unseasonably significant rain event to happen across the entire province to put these in check, and that’s not something that typically happens in July,” Skrepnek said.

In the Wildwood fire hall, the volunteer firefighters are wondering when they will be getting back to their day jobs — at the car dealership, at the plywood plant, even at the marriage counsellor’s office.

“This is going to be a long battle,” Worsley said.

With files from Canadian Press

ghamilton@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/grayhamilton