23,000 lightning strikes spark hundreds of new wildfires in B.C.

23,000 lightning strikes spark hundreds of new wildfires in B.C.
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. Hundreds of lightning strikes in many parts of British Columbia almost tripled the number of active wildfires in the province over the weekend, with the majority burning in central and northern B.C.

More than 23,000 lightning strikes led to hundreds of new wildfires in B.C. as dry conditions continued over the weekend, causing officials to impose a state of emergency in one region.

The Ministry of Emergency Management said that 115 new wildfires were caused by the lightning strikes at a press conference on Monday.

Almost 200 of the 311 fires burning across B.C. are rated as out of control.

Of the 13 blazes listed as “fires of note,” all but two are located in the Prince George and Northwest fire centres, and 12 have prompted at least one evacuation order, although no major communities are threatened.

“Approximately  156 people are under an evacuation order due to wildfires and approximately 629 people are under an evacuation alert,” said Minster Bowinn Ma.

British Columbia is imposing a total campfire ban across the entire province, except Haida Gwaii, after lightning combined with tinder-dry conditions sparked a huge surge in wildfires over the weekend.

The measure, announced by Ma and effective at 3 p.m. Monday, totally bans the smallest category 1 campfires, measuring up to 50 centimetres by 50 centimetres.

It expands on bans that already applied to certain regions or to larger fires.

Ma said the fire situation had “drastically” worsened over the weekend and the province was anticipating “continued extreme fire behaviour.” She said 115 fires were sparked by dry lightning over the weekend, with 311 fires now burning across the province.

She said 156 people were under evacuation orders across B.C., and 629 under evacuation alert to leave their homes at short notice in the northwest, northeast and Cariboo region in the Interior.

Ma also declared a state of emergency for the Stikine Region in the province’s northwest, effective immediately, to allow wildfire evacuations in the unincorporated region. The Little Blue River fire led to the declaration which is at 30,000 hectares in size.

The emergency management ministry said in a statement that the state of emergency would initially be in place for 14 days, but could be rescinded or extended.

“Keeping people safe is our number 1 priority. The state of emergency applies only to the Stikine region, but we are continuously assessing the situation across the province,” Ma said.

Cliff Chapman, BC Wildfire Service spokesman, said the fire situation had escalated over the weekend across much of the province.

B.C. was “tight on resources” to fight the big surge in wildfires, Chapman said, speaking from Kamloops at a news conference on Monday alongside Ma, who was in Vancouver. He said firefighters from Mexico and the United States were in B.C. battling fires in the province’s hard-hit northeast.

“Currently 160 from out-of-province, not including the aviation assets and [we’re] likely to see that number rise,” said Chapman.

The Ladysmith Fire Department and Central Saanich Fire Department each sent three firefighters to help battle wildfires near to Burns Lake.

Chapman said the category 1 campfire ban was needed to reduce the risk of human-caused wildfires.

“We cannot afford to have a preventable fire occur in the province,” he said. “We are asking the globe for help. We cannot afford to have human-caused fires in B.C.”

The Cariboo and Kamloops fire centres in the B.C. Interior and the Prince George fire centre in the northeast had already imposed bans on category 1 campfires.

RELATED: Campfire ban in effect for Vancouver Island starting June 8

Drought conditions have also contributed to the new fires and widespread campfire bans. Much of the province and all of Vancouver Island are under Drought Level 4 conditions.

“We anticipate the need to escalate those water restrictions in larger areas of the province,” said Ma. “The drought situation is serious. We have not experience this level of widespread drought in the province this early in the year.”

Parksville and the Regional District of Nanaimo are under a stage 4 water restriction until further notice. Restricting residents from watering lawns, washing vehicles, and filling up swimming pools.

RELATED: Parksville, Regional District of Nanaimo move to stage 4 water restrictions

Some of the fires are threatening rural highways, including Highway 27 south of Fort St. James and Highway 77 north of Fort Nelson, while flames first spotted last Thursday near the Yukon boundary now cover 300 square kilometres close to Highway 37, but aren’t immediately affecting the link to Watson Lake and Whitehorse.

A wildfire in Yukon has roughly tripled in size since Sunday and remains out of control. Charring about three square kilometres of bush in the Ibex Valley, about 30 kilometres due west of Whitehorse, south of the Alaska Highway, it prompted an evacuation alert for numerous properties along the route.

B.C.’s wildfire danger was high to extreme across all but small pockets of the province on Monday.

Environment Canada posted a severe thunderstorm watch for the Fort Nelson and Peace River regions, the same area where large fires forced evacuations in July.

The weather office noted daily high temperature records were set in the province Sunday, including a high of 33 degrees Celsius in Fort Nelson, two degrees hotter than the previous record for that northeastern community, set 64 years ago.

Forecasters said Nakusp in B.C.’s southeast also posted a sizzling 37.2 C on Sunday, edging its old mark set 22 years earlier, and while no daily highs were posted in Yukon, that territory remains under heat warnings stretching almost 500 kilometres from its boundaries with B.C. and the Northwest Territories north to Mayo.

Conditions could ease slightly in B.C. by Tuesday, but Environment Canada said cooler weather was not likely in Yukon for several more days.

The emergency management ministry said low rainfall and other precipitation over the past year had seen drought conditions worsen in B.C., with most water basins now at level four, on a five-level drought scale. Level-four drought involves extremely dry conditions, with adverse effects of socioeconomic conditions and ecosystems likely.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian PressDirk Meissner, The Canadian Press
Oli HerreraOli Herrera

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