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Wildfires may continue to burn into 2024 in northern B.C., say officials

Severe drought conditions expected to last into the fall

Emergency officials say wildfires in the province’s north may remain active all the way into spring of next year as forecasters are predicting abnormally warm and dry conditions to continue.

The province also continues to grapple with drought conditions and British Columbians are urged to conserve water whenever possible.

“(The) climate crisis is not just knocking on the door,” Emergency Minister Bowinn Ma said. “It has stormed into our house and as we have seen, the consequences are severe.”

She made these comments Wednesday (Sept. 13) as she and Forests Minister Bruce Ralston provided an update on the provincial wildfire and drought situation. Senior staff representing various agencies also participated in the briefing, which was forward-looking in its tone while still serving as a reminder that parts of B.C. are still dealing with wildfires.

“It has been a long, challenging fire season, the worst in British Columbia’s history and it’s not over yet,” Ralston said. A total of 393 wildfires are burning in B.C. with the majority in the northern half of the province.

The region’s Buildup Index, a measurement of fuel readily available to burn, is “anomalously high” and strong winds have spread active fires by up to 40 kilometres a day, according to fire officials.

Firefighters are expecting help from the changing season. Shorter days and sunlight hours tend to lessen burn time and the number of fires ignited by lightning decrease as summer shifts into fall. But officials also warned the number of human-started wildfires tends to remain steady into the fall and that especially dry conditions this year will make them all the more easy to ignite.

Severe drought conditions across the province continue to make matters worse. Latest provincial data shows the entire Thompson-Okanagan, the Lower Mainland and all of Vancouver Island at the worst drought level, which means adverse impacts are almost certain.

READ MORE: Severe drought conditions expand in British Columbia

Officials expect these conditions to persist through the fall, with Environment Canada forecasting above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation. Officials said Wednesday they have no indication enough rain will fall in the near future to alleviate drought conditions.

Pointing to the worsening situation on the Sunshine Coast, Ralston said local municipalities and First Nations can reach out to the province for assistance in developing drought response plans, adding the province will pick up the tab for drinking water, if required.

“We are supporting local governments and First Nations in developing their own water scarcity response plans to supplement their own local emergency management plans,” he said. “Additionally, we are developing what’s called a water scarcity dashboard that will be available for local governments and First Nations to assist with their forecasting, modelling and real-time decision-making for water supply.”

But as Ralston signalled the proactive response of government, he also warned some watersheds will suffer adverse effects.

“By working together, we hope to minimize these long-term impacts as much as possible.”

Long-term changes are coming and they will require adjustments in provincial planning, Ma added.

“It’s too early to know exactly what this will look like into the future,” she said. “But I think it is safe to say…that we will have to more prepared and aware of drought conditions.”

Across B.C., 1,200 people remain under evacuation order and another 34,000 are under alert as the province-wide state of emergency remains in place following its initial introduction on Aug. 19. Unless officially extended, it expires as Sept. 14 turns into Sept. 15.

“The extension is something that we are regularly assessing and over the next 24 hours, we will be watching that closely as well,” she said. B.C. finds itself at the tail end of the wildfire season and evacuation orders are dropping, she said. While evacuation alerts are still high, conditions are improving in some parts of the province, when it comes to wildfires, she added.

“We will have more to say about that probably tomorrow because conditions do change and evolve very rapidly.”

READ ALSO: B.C. launches task force to deal with climate emergencies

– With files from John Arendt