B.C. extending state of emergency due to wildfires as winds expected to fan flames in northeast | CBC News

Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma says British Columbia is extending a state of emergency due to the ongoing wildfires that have devastated parts of the province.

Ma announced the two-week extension at a provincial update on drought and wildfires on Thursday.

The state of emergency, which was initially declared on Aug. 18, gives the province extended powers to respond to disasters such wildfires.

The announcement comes despite a general improvement in wildfire conditions in southern parts of B.C., where rain has helped calm some of the flames.

However, firefighters in the northeast say they are expecting strong winds to exacerbate fires burning near municipalities like Fort Nelson, Fort St. John, Chetwynd and Dawson Creek.

“The north is not getting rain … what they are getting is significant winds,” said Cliff Chapman, a director with the B.C. Wildfire Service (BCWS). “The north is not experiencing the same weather as the south is facing right now.”

The Squamish-Lillooet Regional District has ordered more properties to evacuate in the area of Gun Lake, where the 95-square kilometre Downton Lake Wildfire is still burning out of control.

As wildfire smoke cleared in the West Kelowna, B.C., area on Tuesday, Aug. 22, residents got a chance to survey some of the damage caused by the McDougall Creek wildfire. (Justine Boulin/CBC)

Environment Canada has issued a special weather statement for northeast B.C. concerning widespread gusty winds Thursday night into Saturday.

It says westerly or southwesterly winds of 40 km/h gusting to 60 km/h will develop late Thursday over southeastern Yukon and move into northeastern B.C. Friday morning.

“These winds, in combination with ongoing severe drought and recent heat will lead to an increase in wildfire activity across the landscape,” said the statement.

Environment Canada said the windy conditions could also worsen air quality due to wildfire smoke and create hazards such as broken and falling tree branches.

The BCWS also issued a statement about the expected wind in the northeast, asking residents in the region to stay alert to changes the gusts could cause.

“Wildfires are dynamic and conditions may change rapidly,” it said.

The service has shifted resources to the north to be prepared for increased wildfire activity.

There are more than 3,500 people directly engaged in wildfire response efforts in B.C., including BCWS staff, contractors and personnel from Mexico, South Africa, Australia, Ontario and the Canadian Armed Forces.

Northwest campfire ban

There are currently 422 active wildfires burning in the province, according to the BCWS, an increase of about 50 from a week ago due to unstable weather that has resulted in lightning strikes in several regions.

Close to 200 of the fires are burning out of control, while 12 are considered wildfires of note, meaning they are particularly visible or threatening to nearby communities.

The province said on Thursday that 4,200 people continue to be under an evacuation order due to wildfires, while 65,000 are under an evacuation alert. They must be ready to immediately leave their homes, should conditions change.

Effective Thursday at noon, all campfires will be prohibited in B.C.’s Northwest Fire Centre due to dry and hot conditions.

A full listing of all campfire and open burning bans are listed here.

Rain tempers flames in south

Meanwhile, in B.C.’s southern Interior, widespread rain in the forecast Thursday is expected to aid firefighters pushing back against a number of major wildfires.

The Columbia Shuswap Regional District says while cooler weather brought winds that may increase fire behaviour at the Bush Creek East blaze near Chase, the rain is “creating conditions for firefighters to increase their attack” on the fire now measuring 431 square kilometres.

Forecasts call for showers to continue until at least noon for communities including Kelowna, Lytton and Salmon Arm, all adjacent to wildfires that have forced evacuation orders.

Officials in both the Thompson-Nicola and Fraser Valley regional districts downgraded a number of evacuation orders linked to the Kookipi Creek wildfire to alerts Wednesday, with the BCWS saying some parts of the fire received up to 16 millimetres of rain.

Evacuation orders were also downgraded to alerts in the Bear Creek Road area of West Kelowna in relation to the McDougall Creek fire, as well as in Turtle Valley in the Thompson-Nicola region close to the Bush Creek East blaze.

Evacuation alerts have been cancelled in parts of the Westbank First Nation and the Boucherie Industrial Area in the Central Okanagan.

Drought conditions to persist

At the Thursday news briefing, Forests Minister Bruce Ralston said that despite rain this week, drought conditions were not improving.

He said 80 per cent of the province was currently at either drought level 4 or 5, the worst designations, and that less rain than usual along with an early snowmelt in spring were partly to blame.

“At this point we need several inches of rain or more,” said Ralston about what was needed to improve conditions.

He said he also recognized the hardship that emergency orders to restrict water were having on businesses and peoples’ livelihoods.

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