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Military begins deployment, highway to Bella Coola closed as hundreds of wildfires burn across B.C. | CBC News

The Canadian Armed Forces says the first troops to help in British Columbia’s wildfire fight have arrived in the province, with more soldiers, helicopters and a Hercules plane poised for deployment.

The forces said in a statement that a reconnaissance team is on the ground in Prince George in central B.C. and is working with local authorities, including the B.C. Wildfire Service, to strategize.

The arrival of the personnel and equipment will be welcomed by firefighters and communities, said the province’s Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth.

“We also know we can count on the Canadian Armed Forces to be able to assist in terms of a lot of the work that needs to be done,” he said.

“While they don’t necessarily fight the fires on the front lines, they can provide important work to be able to allow the firefighters to do the work they need to be doing on the ground.”

Farnworth said the federal and B.C. governments, including his ministry, the military and the B.C. Wildfire Service (BCWS) are currently developing a deployment plan “in terms of where is the best place and where the need is required.”

A bald-headed man in suit.
B.C.’s minister of public safety and solicitor general, Mike Farnworth, said the federal and B.C. governments, including his ministry, the military and the B.C. Wildfire Service are currently developing a deployment plan ‘in terms of where is the best place and where the need is required.’ (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

The statement issued by the armed forces says that in addition to the reconnaissance team deployed on Sunday, two companies of soldiers from 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group based in Edmonton will be available “to assist and enable firefighting.”

“The first company will likely be deploying to the Burns Lake area, at the Northwest Fire Centre, and the second will likely deploy to Vanderhoof, at the Prince George Fire Centre,” the statement says.

It says Royal Canadian Air Force aircraft will support firefighting mobility and logistics, as well as emergency evacuations.

The deployment will include two CH-146 Griffon Helicopters from 408 Squadron and, if needed, a CC-130J Hercules from 8 Wing Trenton.

Defence Minister Anita Anand said the Canadian Coast Guard will also provide two helicopters to transport firefighters and equipment to remote locations and provide support to remote coastal communities facing restricted access due to wildfires.

Canada’s Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair announced on Friday that military help had been approved after his counterpart in B.C., Bowinn Ma, made a request for federal help amid an eruption of fire activity.

Firefighters from an Alaska smoke jumpers unit refuel with pizza on the fire line of a wildfire burning near a highway in northern British Columbia, Canada on July 11, 2023.
Firefighters from an Alaskan unit refuel with pizza on the fire line of a wildfire burning near a highway in northern B.C. on July 11. (Jesse Winter/Freelance)

Military assistance includes airlift evacuations

The B.C. Wildfire Service lists more than 360 wildfires burning in the province, with 23 listed as fires of note, where they are a threat to safety or are especially visible to the public.

Recent data has prompted the federal government and B.C. Premier David Eby to say that Canada and B.C. are on track to record their worst wildfire seasons in 100 years.

The 2023 wildfire season has now burned over 13,900 square kilometres as of 7 p.m. PT, breaking the record of just over 13,500 square kilometres set in 2018.

A working group comprised of members of Public Safety Canada, the Canadian Armed Forces, and B.C. emergency management and wildfire officials met over the weekend to focus on deploying the federal resources.

Blair said last week 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.

Transport Canada, Parks Canada, Public Services and Procurement Canada, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are standing by to provide assistance.

A man with glasses in suit sits in front of a Canadian flag.
Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair holds a news conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 11, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Surinderpal Rathor, the mayor of Williams Lake, B.C., said Monday the arrival of the military will serve as a morale boost for firefighters and communities facing the wildfires.

Williams Lake, a community of about 10,000 people in B.C.’s central Interior, was evacuated in July 2017 due to encroaching wildfires.

“They were welcomed by the people, by the organizations, by the community, by the city, by the authorities, and they were the greatest help,” Rathor said in an interview on Monday. “It was the best thing that could have ever happened to Williams Lake. Without their help, we would not have been able to survive.”

Provincial fire information officer Sarah Budd said the service is “grateful” to the federal government for making the aid available.

“We have a long history of working together during particularly challenging wildfire seasons, of which this is obviously one,” she said in an interview Monday.

Budd said the average area burned by this time of year, going back a decade, is about 1,000 square kilometres.

“It is considerably more [this year], and there are a lot of reasons for that, the kind of underlying drought conditions that we had going into the season that are the results [of] longer-term weather patterns,” she said.

While much of the wildfire activity is concentrated in northwest B.C. and the central Interior, wildfires were also starting in the southeast.

On Monday, the B.C. Wildfire Service said a blaze 15 kilometres north of West Kelowna, B.C. was highly visible to residents in the area.

Hwy 20 closed

B.C.’s current wildfire situation includes an “aggressive” fire that exploded in size over the weekend and cut off highway access near the Central Coast, while more than a dozen new blazes have been sparked since Sunday, says the B.C. Wildfire Service.

The service says Highway 20 east of Bella Coola was closed Sunday evening as the fire that was discovered near Young Creek just the day before swelled to 22 square kilometres in size.

The service says no evacuation orders have been issued for the fire.

The Thompson-Nicola Regional District says the Bush Creek East fire near Kamloops is “highly visible,” but no evacuation orders or alerts have been issued even as gusty winds have fanned wildfires around the city.

The Cariboo Regional District issued an evacuation order issued Friday spanning nearly 3,340 square kilometres in the Lhoosk’uz area, west of Quesnel, as well as several others in the region.

To the north, the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako rescinded an evacuation order related to the Big Creek wildfire. Residents of a remote area that includes Omineca Provincial Park have been allowed to return home, although they remain subject to an alert and must be ready to leave right away.

The Peace River Regional District in the province’s northeast has also cancelled an evacuation alert covering 60 properties due to the Donnie Creek blaze, the largest recorded in B.C.’s history.

The alert had covered a lengthy stretch of Highway 97 and properties in a remote area north of Fort St. John for more than two weeks.

Firefighters in bright yellow uniforms walk across a tarmac at an airport on a sunny day.
Portuguese firefighters arrive at the military airport in Lisbon for a brief departure ceremony before boarding a flight for Canada on June 14 to help with wildfires. (Armando Franca/The Associated Press)

Light rain brings light relief

B.C.’s drought bulletin shows widespread drought conditions, with the fire danger rating ranked at high to extreme across much of the province.

Environment Canada’s forecast for Kamloops says there’s a chance of rain and a risk of thunderstorms this afternoon, with many regions in the province under cloudy skies with possible rain on the way, breaking a weeks-long drought.

Metro Vancouver’s cloudy skies Monday brought light rain.

A wide shot of a river shows noticeably low water levels, with some fishermen able to wade to the centre of the river for their catch.
Rivers in the Chilliwack and Fraser Valley area are at levels normally seen in late August or early September, according to local residents. Drought levels are high throughout B.C. (Justine Boulin/CBC)

Four of the 34 basins the province monitors are ranked at the most severe level of drought. That includes all of Vancouver Island, the Bulkley-Lakes basin and the Fort Nelson basin.

Such conditions are likely to continue, Budd added.

“We haven’t had the level of precipitation that would be required to address those underlying drought conditions, so they do persist, and when we get lightning strikes, the materials out there on the landscape are really susceptible to ignition.”


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