May 29th, 2024

‘Extreme drought’ in area of early-season wildfire near Chetwynd, B.C.

By The Canadian Press on April 25, 2024.

An out-of-control wildfire in northeastern British Columbia has triggered the province's first evacuation of this year's fire season. A wildfire burns in the Peace River Regional District of British Columbia in a May 5, 2023, handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-BC Wildfire Service *MANDATORY CREDIT*

CHETWYND, B.C. – British Columbia’s first wildfire evacuation order of this season lasted under 24 hours, but local officials say dry conditions mean the risk is still high.

Mike Bernier, the member of the legislature for Peace River South, says there’s “no moisture in the area,” which saw hardly any snowpack this winter.

He says the early-season wildfire was discovered “really close” to a small subdivision about four kilometres outside Chetwynd, B.C., on Wednesday afternoon.

Bernier says the blaze flared up and quickly grew to 50 hectares, prompting an evacuation order from the Peace River Regional District.

The order was downgraded to an evacuation alert Thursday, with residents told to remain ready to leave on short notice.

Julia Nelson, acting mayor of Chetwynd, says the order affected 67 homes.

The Wildmare Creek fire is evidence of the “extreme drought” the region is facing, she said in an interview on Thursday.

“The fire chief was saying that this fire was burning so fast and so hot that it almost seemed like we were surprised that there wasn’t any structural damage.”

Nelson said strong winds had fanned the flames on Wednesday, but calmer conditions and rain helped to bring reprieve last night.

“So, kind of acts of God just saved our community at this point,” she said.

The BC Wildfire Service website says local RCMP and the Chetwynd Fire Department had conducted a “tactical evacuation” for homes in the immediate area of the blaze, which is now estimated at 76 hectares in size.

The Ministry of Transportation’s DriveBC information service shows a 10-kilometre stretch of Highway 97 has reopened to escorted single-lane alternating traffic.

Nelson said her community is looking ahead to a long, hot fire season.

“I don’t know if we have the solutions to be able to contain and deal with that.”

She said the province has moved the base for the BC Wildfire Service’s northern initial attack crew from Chetwynd to Dawson Creek, about 100 kilometres away.

“It’s only April, and our community was extremely at risk to burn. That fire was just a few kilometres away … and to me, that’s evidence that we do need more assistance.”

The Chetwynd Fire Department works on a volunteer basis, Nelson added.

The suspected cause of the blaze is human activity, and Bernier said it’s so dry, people need to be careful.

“It really has me worried for the whole season up in the Peace Region if this continues. We need all hands on deck watching and keeping the area safe,” he said in an interview at the B.C. legislature on Thursday.

The Peace Region has been one of the driest areas in B.C. since last summer, and a recent bulletin showed average snowpack there was 65 per cent of normal.

Forests Minister Bruce Ralston said Thursday that the province is “ready” for what’s to come this summer after B.C. saw its worst-ever season last year, with more than 28,000 square kilometres burned.

The early start to this year’s wildfire season includes more than 100 active fires throughout B.C., with four new fires sparked in the last 24 hours.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2024.

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