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‘Long, complex and challenging’: Worsening drought feeds wildfire risk

Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma says conditions could continue into next year
The Donnie Creek wildfire burns in an area between Fort Nelson and Fort St. John, B.C., in this undated handout photo provided by the BC Wildfire Service. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/BC Wildfire Service)

The province is preparing for serious drought that could worsen into 2024 as B.C. experiences a record-breaking wildfire season.

Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma combined Tuesday’s update about the wildfire season with a broad appeal to individuals, municipalities and large companies to conserve water.

“We are experiencing a serious drought, which may worsen into the fall or even into next year,” she said. “Everyone needs to do their part…we are actively monitoring conditions and in some cases will impose restrictions if voluntary measures do no prove to be enough.”

If the current drought were to extend into next year, the impact could be significant and widespread, she added.

“If we do not get significant precipitation over the winter and into the spring, those (municipal) reservoirs might not re-charge the way that we normally expect them to and that could mean earlier drought conditions, another wildfire season, like we have seen this year,” she said. “It means earlier water restrictions. It can also mean impacts to the health of streams and rivers downstream of those reservoirs and throughout the province as well. The impacts can be widespread (and) we are attempting to assess and understand what those long term impacts are.”

Ma made these comments against the backdrop of a record-setting wildfire season, which is leaving B.C. with a “long, complex and challenging” road ahead.

Nearly 400 active wildfires are currently burning in the province with more than half of them out of control. As of Monday, 1,183 wildfires have burned a total of 1.39 million hectares since April 1 – ousting the previous record of 1.35 million hectares burned in 2018.

1.39M HECTARES: B.C. wildfire season now worst on record

Current wildfires have led to the evacuation of 150 people and about 3,400 people are subject to an evacuation alert in the northwestern, northeastern and Cariboo regions of the province, Ma added.

RELATED: 100,000 square kilometres burn in record-breaking Canadian wildfire season

RELATED: ‘The heart of us’: Colleagues and family honour fallen B.C. firefighter Devyn Gale

Ma praised British Columbians for preventing human-caused fires. Humans caused only 13 out of 235 new wildfire starts last week, she said. “Please keep up the good work and remain cautious with any activity that could lead to wildfire,” she said.

But she paired this praise with appeals to conserve water and warnings about future consequences in a future where water will be increasingly scarce.

Ma’s cabinet colleague Agriculture Minister Pam Alexis said her ministry is responding to the drought conditions by making supports available to farmers, but acknowledged that current conditions have already caused damages to B.C.’s food supplies with more assessments underway.

“At this point, I would say that that likely we’re looking at losses,” Alexis said, adding that impacts are the greatest in local communities where the drought and current wildfires are the worst. “But as far as the bigger picture and impacts to British Columbia, I’m just not sure at this moment, because we are not even halfway through (the wildfire season) yet.”

These warnings and assessments from cabinet members have gained a different tone after the death of 19-year-old firefighter Devyn Gale last week. Ma honoured Gale during her opening remarks. “Every day during wildfire season, our firefighting crews go to heroic lengths just like Devyn to keep people and communities in B.C. safe,” Ma said.

Cliff Chapman, Director of Provincial Operations for British Columbia Wildfire Service, thanked Ma for those comments. “BC Wildfire Service is a very a tight-knit family,” Chapman said. “In my 22-year-career, we never had a firefighter fatality. It’s impacting our organization, greatly. Devyn Gale was a member of that family…she will forever be remembered.”

RELATED: Asthmatic B.C. boy who died amid wildfire smoke called ‘face of climate crisis’

Tuesday’s briefing also touched on the death of nine-year-old Carter Vigh, who died from asthma exacerbated by wildfire smoke.

“I can’t imagine a worse situation for a family to go through and I know that all of our hearts go out to the family and everyone who knew the young man,” Ma said. “It absolutely is a reminder that wildfire smoke can present health and safety risks, particularly for those who are very vulnerable and in some cases that risk is extreme depending on the vulnerability.”


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