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'Unprecedented' wildfire season poised to continue into fall

Leeanna McLean
Digital Reporter

Sunday, September 10, 2017, 8:25 AM - Over 11,000 square kilometres have been scorched so far across British Columbia, and officials say this 'unprecedented' wildfire season may continue well into fall.

Air quality statements have been a daily part of life for a wide swath of the province, including much of the central and southern Interior.

In addition to the 143 active wildfires currently burning across B.C., the South Coast continues to battle smoke that is spilling over the border from fires burning stateside, according to Kevin Skrepnek, chief fire information officer with B.C. Wildfire Service.


• Kelowna received 2.2 mm of rain on Friday, Sept. 8 -- the highest one-day rainfall total since June 1
• Ridge building in on Sunday from the southwest will clear out smoke from the Lower Mainland and warm the area up above seasonal temperatures by Monday
• Northern interior could see 75+ mm of rain on Sunday through Monday, and 70-90 km/h wind gusts Sunday night into Monday morning.

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"We've got a bit of a southerly flow right now, so a lot of that smoke is drifting northward over the border," he told The Weather Network Thursday afternoon. "For the most part the smoke we are getting is coming from elsewhere, which isn't unusual, but of course for this time of year to have this level of fire activity isn't the norm and the fact that the smoke has been lingering for so long is also unusual."

The smoke is bad for both air quality and relief efforts as it inhibits the ability to use aircraft to fight the fires due to visibility concerns. However, the smoke has a beneficial effect, Skrepnek highlighted.

"When the smoke is thick, it reflects a lot of the sun's heat, so that heat isn't reaching the fires," he said. "That can bring a pretty significant drop in temperature, anywhere from an eight to 10-degree difference when you have that layer of smoke over the area. It also traps a bit more humidity closer to the ground, so that also cools things off."

In the Kootenays, forecasters are watching a Pacific system headed for the B.C. coast Saturday that is expected to bring strong winds that may help fan and spread the fires. Previously, fires had been relatively calm in the area, as smoke continued to smother them.

On Saturday, the Finlay Creek Fire, discovered on Sept. 2, was estimated at over 2200 hectares in size. Crews initiated a controlled burn, which helped significantly reduce the blaze. 

"The main factors influencing this fire behaviour are terrain and wind speed/direction," BC Wildfire Service said in a statement. "Largely this fire activity and rate of spread is due to how dry the fuels are within this area of the Okanagan."

"Wind has been one of the biggest challenges so far this season," Skrepnek said.

On the bright side, the system brought showers to the South Coast. Kelowna received 2.2 mm of rain on Friday, the biggest one-day rain total since June 1.

"There are parts of B.C. that haven't had a drop of rain in over two months and it has just made things incredibly volatile," he said. "What we need for the southern half of the province is a long sustained rain over the course of two to three days, 40-50 mm of rain and simply put, that isn't in the cards right now."

With more than 11,000 square kilometres (1.1 million hectares) charred so far this year, this is the worst wildfire season on record. Over 430 structures have been destroyed by the wildfires, including 220 homes, according to Emergency Management B.C.

The previous record was set in 1958 when 8,550 square kilometres (855,000 hectares) were affected by wildfires.

The historic season will come with long-lasting effects, especially on the province's logging industry.

"There hasn't been a full assessment of what areas have been fully damaged and what might be salvageable in terms of harvest," the chief fire information officer said. "We will get a much better idea with the months going forward as the fires themselves calm down, but certainly with the area that has been affected, there's going to be consequences for the forest sector of this province for time to come."

Evacuation orders continue for parts of the province, including portions of the Cariboo Regional District. At the peak of the season, over 45,000 people were displaced.

Looking ahead, the end of the wildfire season will be totally dependent on the weather, according to Skrepnek.

"We've had very busy seasons that ended quite abruptly around this time of year. 2015 comes in mind as a season that had a lot of activity, a lot of impacts to communities across the province, but early September brought a significant shift in the weather and things were relatively well in hand," he said.

"Conversely, we had somewhat slow seasons that lingered well into the fall where we had interface fires that lasted well into October. Until we have a better picture of what the weather will be like, it's going to be really hard to know how long the situation will continue for."

The B.C. Wildfire Service has seen a regional shift in terms of where the greatest concern is. While a lot of the wildfire activity has been in the Interior, the southeast corner of the province has been problematic recently as summer-like conditions continue in the area.

"It's going to be a case-by-case basis in terms of getting a handle on these fires until we experience a significant weather shift across the province."

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