‘It’s way too early’: Officials, residents scramble as B.C. wildfires spread sooner than expected

Click to play video: 'Wildfire season sparks early in B.C.'
Wildfire season sparks early in B.C.
WATCH: Record heat, a low snow pack and dry conditions have sparked several early wildfires and as Grace Ke reports, one burning in central B.C. has already triggered evacuations – May 12, 2019

B.C.’s wildfire season has arrived in force, and officials have been caught off guard.

The quick spread of the Lejac wildfire near Fraser Lake in the province’s central Interior led to the season’s first evacuation order Saturday night, with residents of more than a dozen rural homes forced to leave.

Several other homes are on evacuation alert nearby, while the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako declared a local state of emergency as the fire swelled to 236 hectares.

Roughly 40 firefighters are currently fighting the blaze along with air tankers. As of Sunday, the fire was still considered zero per cent contained.

A map of the evacuation order and alert issued Saturday, May 11 by the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako. Orange indicates the evacuation order, while beige highlights the areas under an evacuation alert. Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako

Speaking from Vanderhoof soon after the orders were issued, regional district board chair Gerry Thiessen said preparations made over the winter are already being tested.

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“It’s way too early,” he said. “After what we went through last year, we have made sure we are as well prepared as we possibly can be. But we certainly thought we would get a lot more moisture this spring and we haven’t received that.”

WATCH: Fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek gives an update on the wildfires in B.C. Sunday

Click to play video: 'Officials contend with early start to B.C. wildfire season'
Officials contend with early start to B.C. wildfire season

Large parts of B.C. are in the grips of a spring heat wave, with several May temperature records crumbling every day of the weekend.

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Temperatures have reached 30 C in parts of the Okanagan, while the Interior is cresting in the mid- to high 20s.

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That dry weather — coupled with a low snowpack and drought concerns — have created perfect conditions for wildfires to spark, with the fire danger rating reaching high to extreme in some pockets.

Thiessen said he’s growing concerned about the dry weather arriving earlier.

“It used to be July, August when we would have fires and see the dry part of the year,” he said Sunday. “Now, we’re seeing it in June, a bit into May, and now it’s early May.”

A look at the wildfires burning across the province as of Sunday, May 12, 2019. The large flame icons indicate wildfires of note, including the Lejac fire near Prince George. BC Wildfire Service

As of Sunday, there were 22 notable wildfires burning across the province, including a new fire that was noticed that day near Kamloops. Many more of the fires have sparked over the past week.

Chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek with the B.C. Wildfire Service said 148 wildfires have sparked since the official start of the season on April 1.

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While he said that’s normal for the time of year, he added that the hot weather in the past week isn’t helping matters.

“That’s definitely our main concern right now,” he said on Sunday. “A busy spring doesn’t necessarily indicate a busy summer, but obviously, we’re not off to a good start based on what we’re seeing.”

Skrepnek said predicting whether the summer will match up to the record-breaking wildfire seasons of 2018 and 2017 is “impossible” and that officials are looking at how much rain falls over the next few weeks.

The Lejac fire and nearly half of the fires currently burning in B.C. are believed to be human-caused.

WATCH (May 9): Growing concerns about 2019 fire season

Click to play video: 'Growing concerns about 2019 fire season'
Growing concerns about 2019 fire season

Skrepnek said the tinder-dry conditions across B.C. make it crucial for people to be aware of the danger they pose to their communities by being careless.

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“We just want people to be careful, whether it’s with a campfire or any other kind of burning material that could spark a fire,” he said.

The most important thing people can do, Skrepnek added, is to get prepared now as wildfire season gets going with a bang.

“It is early May but, clearly, it has arrived,” he said.

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