British Columbia is putting out a call for national and international help to fight wildfires that are blanketing communities in thick smoke, as some residents watch flames approach their homes.
The province had requested 1,000 additional foreign firefighters to join 160 from Mexico and the United States already in B.C., said Bowinn Ma, minister of emergency management and climate readiness.
Ma also formally requested more federal resources from her counterpart in Ottawa, Bill Blair, to help fight the 350 or so fires burning across B.C.
She said at a briefing about drought conditions in B.C. on Thursday that an “incident management team” from Australia is arriving on Saturday.
Firefighters from South Korea, France, South Africa and the Dominican Republic have also been fighting fires in Canada, during what is shaping up as a record-breaking fire season.
Blair, federal minister of emergency preparedness, had earlier said he was expecting a “fairly substantive” request for help from B.C. as wildfires worsen.
Blair told The Canadian Press the government operations centre has been in discussions with the province for the last several days, and Ottawa is ready to deploy resources.
“The fire season now is obviously sparking up pretty seriously out there and they have sent us an indication of some additional resources that they will require,” he said in an interview Thursday.
“For the last 48 hours we’ve been working with Canadian Armed Forces, Parks Canada, Natural Resources Canada, and people from the Canadian Coast Guard,” said Blair. “There’s a lot of different federal departments all mobilizing their response to the requirements of British Columbia.”
He said the federal help could include military assistance for airlift evacuations from remote locations, as well as troops trained as firefighters who can “mop up” to keep blazes from reigniting.
“If there are communities that become isolated and need to be evacuated, then Canadian Armed Forces provides those resources,” Blair said.
The Canadian Coast Guard is also mobilizing support for affected coastal communities, and Natural Resources Canada staff with forest management expertise are also preparing to help, he said.
Blair added there are a number of national parks in B.C., so Parks Canada is ready to aid the province with park firefighters and forest management experts.
Blair said B.C. is one of the better-equipped provinces to handle fires because it is often among the hardest hit, but any extra help needed is being made available.
B.C. would welcome all additional firefighters and equipment as hot weather and afternoon lightning storms keep fire conditions extreme and strain resources, said BC Wildfire Service spokesman Cliff Chapman.
“It is very, very challenging across Canada and across the globe right now to secure additional firefighting capacity,” he said. “This is a very dangerous job. With the conditions we are in it makes it all that much more dangerous for our staff who are working 14-, 16-, 20-hour days trying to do everything to move these fires away from critical impacts.”
He said in northwest B.C., 51,000 lightning strikes have been recorded over the past seven days and about 160 wildfires are burning. Crews were facing difficult conditions in which daily afternoon lightning storms were starting new fires.
Fire officials have also received reports from residents living in Burns Lake and Houston who say they can see flames from their backyards, he said.
Chapman said more than 2,000 B.C. firefighters are currently battling the flames, but many need rest and the arrival of international help will provide that opportunity.
“We are not short 1,000 firefighters in B.C. at this time,” he said. “We are planning ahead, obviously looking into next week, but even looking into the next number of weeks to secure resources so we can rest some of our staff.”
Ma’s request for more international help was lodged through the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, which co-ordinates firefighting resources across the country.
Premier David Eby said earlier this week the province was looking for more firefighting support, particularly air equipment, in its battle against wildfires.
He said forecasts suggest B.C. and Canada could be facing the worst fire season in 100 years.
Eby expressed gratitude for the help provided by the firefighters from Mexico and the U.S. who are on the frontlines with provincial crews.
Rural and northern B.C. communities have felt the brunt of this year’s wildfire season, but on Wednesday, smoke from a blaze on the mountains overlooking Vancouver could be seen across the city, as helicopters dropped water to extinguish the flames.
Brant Arnold-Smith, director of the Metro Vancouver regional district’s emergency operations centre, said at a media briefing Thursday that crews were still tackling hot spots, saying the fire in North Vancouver’s Seymour conservation area is deep underground.
“We are quite confident that it will not spread anymore,” he said.
Arnold-Smith said their initial theory suggested it was caused by lightning, but they’re not ruling out that it was human caused until an investigation is done.
But he said the fire was in a “rugged, secluded area” where people rarely trek, taking an hour and a half for crews to reach the scene through thick brush.
“This event serves as an important reminder as to how dry our region is,” he said. “It’s been almost a month of just no precipitation in the region, so our green spaces are very dry and very susceptible to any sort of ignition sources that could cause a wildfire.”
There are more than 350 wildfires burning in all corners of the province, and the BC Wildfire Service warns another blast of heat in many areas could add more burdens on already overstretched crews.
The wildfire service says a week-old, 300-square-kilometre blaze close to Highway 37 just south of the Yukon boundary has been calm, but it and similar fires across northern B.C. could flare up during the next several days of expected hot weather.
Dirk Meissner and Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press
— With files from Darryl Greer
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 13, 2023.