Recent rain has dampened but not changed the overall dynamic of the wildfire season across British Columbia as foreign firefighters are starting to arrive to assist local crews.
Cliff Chapman, director of provincial operations for British Columbia Wildfire Service, said crews have welcomed recent rain in the southern half of the province, including Vancouver Island. But the province needs what Chapman called “sustained rainfall” through the month of June heading in July and August, not the “drips and drabs” with some localized downpours of recent days.
“We have not seen sustained rainfall in this province really since we wiped snow free,” Chapman said in reminding the public about the drought through the fall of 2022 and record-breaking temperatures through May and June 2023. “We are in a tricky spot.”
B.C. needs seven to 10 days of rainfall, he added.
“That’s just not in the forecast right now,” he said.
More rain is expected to fall today, but it is going to be scattered and enough to make a difference. Forecasts call for a range of somewhere between 5 and 20 millimetres of rain, he added.
“That will help but it won’t be enough to make knock down that hazard as we enter into July and August, which typically set up as our warmer, drier, hotter months, where we see ridges of high pressures sit over the province for sometimes weeks.”
Paradoxically, rain also bears risks. “Unfortunately, rain is also coming with thunderstorms (with lightning),” he said.
Chapman made these comments during a briefing with top ranking officials — Emergency Minister Bowinn Ma and Forestry Minister Bruce Ralston, as well as other representatives from other relevant ministries, including transportation.
The update revealed that 86 wildfires are currently burning across British Columbia with 13 discovered in just the past 24 hours.
“Since April 1, 2023, 433 wildfires have burnt a total of 762, 000 hectares,” Ralston said. “The 20-year-average for this time of the year is 306 wildfires and 18,000 hectares.”
He added that more than 1,300 crews are working across the province, with the most of the firefighting efforts taking place in the northeastern corner of the province. BC Wildfire Service has moved to operating around the year, having hired more than 100 new permanent staff while recruiting another 330 crews, Ralston added.
But he also issued this warning.
“Even with scaled-up investments and programs, we have had a difficult fire season to date and we may well have a difficult summer,” he said.
Chapman said that British Columbia has enough resources to manage existing and future fires. But B.C. has already proactively submitted requests for support from other jurisdictions for local crews in action since mid-April to rest and recover.
“We may see some staff coming in from the United States,” he said. He added later that B.C. has requested an incident management team consisting of some 20 crews from the United States.
“That’s what’s coming this weekend and we put requests in for the next two weeks,” he said, adding that B.C. can cancel these requests any time. Up to 100 firefighters could also potentially arrive from the United States at a later date, he said.
“We’ve also been in conversations about potentially looking at firefighting resources from other agencies like Mexico, the United States (and) the European Union,” he said.
Ralston stressed that money won’t be an issue. Spending for wildfires is statutory, meaning that money will be available when it is needed without having to go through the cabinet process, he said.
As for the actual amount that B.C. could end up spending, Chapman said that is difficult to forecast, adding that one potential reference point are the wildfire seasons of 2017, 2018 and 2021, the three worst seasons on record.
“It was roughly $500 million in direct response recovery costs associated with those fire seasons and slightly up from there depending on which of those three years,” he said.
Ma also used the occasion to remind the public to prepare ahead by putting together an emergency plan, sign up for various information sources and follow local instructions, when asked to evacuate. According to Ma, just over 2,750 people in northeastern B.C. have evacuated so far in the face of wildfires.