B.C.'s unprecedented wildfire season highlighted in new BCWS video

Unprecedented fire season

With cool, wet conditions across much of southern B.C. this week, the devastating wildfires that tore through the province just a few months ago can seem like a distant memory to some. But the BC Wildfire Service's season summary report and video released Thursday outlines just how unprecedented this past wildfire season truly was.

Between April 1 and Oct. 31, more than 2.84 million hectares of British Columbia was burned by 2,245 wildfires. This is more than double the previous worst fire season on record, which was 1.335 million hectares in 2018. The estimated cost of wildfire suppression totalled a staggering $817 million.

The vast majority of this year's fires burned in B.C.'s north; more than 80% of all area burned occurred in the Prince George fire centre.

But while just seven per cent of the area burned occurred in the Kamloops Fire Centre, which encompasses the Thompson-Okanagan, the region saw plenty of devastation, with large fires tearing through densely populated areas in West Kelowna, Kelowna, Lake Country and the Shuswap.

Tens of thousands of people across the province were forced to evacuate their homes this past summer. Many were left with no home to return to.

But the truly devastating impact of the 2023 fire season is the tragic loss of six B.C. wildland firefighters: Devyn Gale, Zak Muise, Kenneth Patrick, Jaxon Billyboy, Blain Sonnenberg and Damian Dyson.

“We haven't had a ground-based fatality like Devyn's or Zak's for a number of years. The motor vehicle accident was tragic as well, with the four Tomahawk crew members that were killed in that accident,” said Todd Nessman, manager of wildfire operations with BCWS.

“It was tough for everybody, I think we all struggle in going through it and grasping the reality of that situation.”

Of the 2,445 fires sparked this year, 72 per cent were naturally caused, while 25 per cent were human caused. The remaining three per cent remain undetermined.

In its season summary, the BCWS says the destructive fire season can be traced back to the fall of 2022, when B.C. had one of its driest and warmest Octobers ever.

“Valley bottoms and deeper fuel layers continued to be very dry from the fall and into April as there was little to no precipitation received, making forest fuels easily susceptible to ignition," the BCWS states. "Unusually advanced fire behaviour was observed as a result of the drought conditions, considering how early in the spring it was.”

This was followed by an early-season heatwave in May, with continued abnormally dry conditions across the province.

“The exceptional summer-like conditions accelerated snow melt and the drying of fuels, making high-elevation areas snow-free and therefore receptive to lightning two to four weeks earlier than normal,” the BCWS says.

While wet weather is usually expected in June, it never came

“We were starting to see drought conditions you would expect in July and August, setting up in June, when we would expect the wettest month of the fire season,” said Neal McLoughlin, superintendent of predictive services with the BCWS.

“As of June, one of our larger fires in the Prince George fire centre, the Donnie Creek wildfire, exceeded the previous largest fire size on record and became B.C.'s largest fire in history.”

Significantly high temperatures continued through the summer, with community heat records regularly breaking and precipitation remaining sparse. Then, in mid-August, a now-notorious dry cold front came through the province, bringing strong winds that whipped up a number of existing wildfires into massive blazes, including the McDougall Creek wildfire and the Bush Creek East and Lower East Adams Lake near the Shuswap.

“We had multiple fires across the province blow up. These are days when firefighting is not possible, we have to really look to protecting the safety of our staff on the ground,” McLoughlin said.

“Some of the most significant impacts we endured from a community perspective were a result of that cold frontal passage.”

Summer conditions persisted well into September and October, proving challenging for the roughly 2,000 BCWS firefighters who worked tirelessly to protect the province this year. Additionally, crews from 135 municipal fire departments from across the province sprang into action to help protect homes when needed, including dozens of crews who came to the rescue in West Kelowna.

“On one hand, we're really proud of what we accomplished this year and the amount of work we did, but on the other hand, there were some pretty big losses over the season and that weighs heavily on people,” said Elora Van Jarrett, a unit crew supervisor who was featured in the BCWS season summary video.

“We're sort of wanting to celebrate what we accomplished but also wanted to pay respect to what was lost.”

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