As wildfires in British Columbia continue to rage and thick smoke blankets the province, residents in some areas are beginning to wonder if this is what they can expect every year.
Penticton resident Jo-Anne Ball says this is the third year in a row that the region has been impacted by wildfires.
“Everyone you talk to says this is our new norm and I wonder if that’s true, because this is our third summer now that we have been dealing with the wildfires and smoke,” she says.
“It makes a person wonder what the future holds, do we stay or do we go? If this is our new normal, what will it do to the tourist industry, our vineyards, and economy?”
Ball, 59, says a thick layer of ash currently covers everything outdoors.
“Here in Penticton, we are bound to our homes. The smoke is so heavy here in the valley right now, when you step outside the smell in the air is so strong it drives you back inside,” she says.
“Our streets and beaches usually at this time of year are crowded with tourists, but now you just see a few scattered few people walking in the streets and hanging out at the lake.”
Tara dos Santos, who moved to Prince George with her husband and 2-year-old son two years ago, says she’s now wondering whether “every summer is going to be filled with smoke.”
“Having bought a house and made a lot of investments in settling here, I feel a little uncertain about my choice of location,” she says.
“The fires aren’t really that close, so I’m not yet worried about losing the house or even necessarily being evacuated, but is every summer going to be filled with smoke? Last summer was. This summer is. Our summers are so short here and now we’re basically stuck inside, or at least quite limited in our summer activities, for a good part of them.”
“What if the fires persist and come closer next year?” she adds. “Is the value of my house going to drop?”
Dos Santos also wonders if the forestry practices in B.C. are contributing to the fires. “That’s pure speculation, but I’ve long had the feeling we’re tinkering with things we don’t necessarily understand.”
Kim, a teacher in Prince George who declined to give her last name, says that while the smoke “is horrible and is affecting so many people and their daily lives,” she notes that forest fires are a part of life in the region.
“We do live in an area where forest fires can and do happen so it kind of is what it is and there’s not much that can be done about it.”
55 Significant Fires
Since April 1, there have been 1,891 wildfires in the province, according to the B.C. Wildfire Service website. As of Aug. 21, there are 55 fires of note among the approximately 500 fires currently burning, with some of the worst in the Cariboo region.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many significant fires burning at one time and so widespread as well,” Kevin Screpnek, BC Chief Fire Information Officer, said in a media conference call.
Screpnek said there are over 3,500 personnel working under the fire service, including frontline firefighters, over 1,400 contractors from the B.C. forestry industry, and nearly 600 out-of-province personnel.
(1/2) We continue to see smoky conditions across #BC – particularly in areas throughout the Prince George and Northwest fire centres. These photos, taken from the Fort St. James area, illustrate these conditions. #BCwildfire pic.twitter.com/xBrIKevSqc
— BC Wildfire Service (@BCGovFireInfo) August 16, 2018
In addition, some First Nations and Indigenous governments have offered support to evacuees in their areas. The BC RCMP and the Canadian Armed forces are offering support as well, each sending approximately 200 officers or soldiers to help on the frontline and civilian services.
Evacuation orders have been issued in several areas, and there are 13 emergency social service reception centres active across the province supporting those who have been evacuated from their homes.
As well as the smoke, an orange haze from the fires has been cloaking towns and cities as far away as Alberta.
BC Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said in the conference call that authorities have been working on setting up clean air areas where people can escape from the smoke.
To reduce exposure to smoke, Henry advises residents to stay indoors and if possible use a portable air cleaner with air filtration to improve air quality in the home.
On Aug. 21, B.C. Premier John Horgan and federal Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan toured the affected area around Prince George.
“The tragic wildfire season two years in a row has had a profound impact on people’s lives, a profound impact on the economy, on wildlife, and most importantly on public safety,” Horgan told reporters.
Last Two Summers Hotter, Drier
Marc Levasseur, who works in B.C.’s reforestation industry, says the sector has been dealing with hot dry summers for the past 10 years and that removal of unwanted brush is always on the verge of being shut down due to fire hazard levels.
He says the fire cycle is a natural phenomenon for the boreal forest, but notes that last year and this year seem to be hotter and drier than usual, leading to an elevated fire hazard level and more wildfires.
Levasseur cites the mountain pine beetle epidemic from 15 years ago as another major factor in the wildfires.
“All of the dead standing timber is not falling to the ground, and leading to more ground fuel for fires,” he says. “The dead trees have also opened up the forest canopy, allowing more sunlight into the understory and giving more growth for juvenile trees. These also increase the fire fuels and can lead to crown fires as well.”
Levasseur notes that most fires are preventable, with the majority being man-made from cigarettes or campfires.
“Let’s hope mother nature sends some rain our way soon,” Ball says from Penticton. “For all of B.C., Alberta, and the rest of Canada, I pray we all see an end to these wildfires soon.”