British Columbia emergency officials have expressed cautious optimism that the worst of the wildfire season has passed, but are warning of the looming threat posed by an ongoing drought.
Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Minister Bowinn Ma said as of Wednesday, there were still 3,800 people under evacuation orders and 34,000 more under evacuation alerts.
“We are trending in a positive direction as some evacuation orders are being downgraded to evacuation alerts,” Ma said.
“Over the last few days, evacuation alerts covering approximately 30,000 people have been rescinded — this has allowed families to breathe a sigh of relief as the threat level has reduced.”
The province still does not have a full tally of the number of homes and structures destroyed by fires this year, but it is in the “hundreds,” Ma said. Previous estimates from local officials suggest up to 200 structures were destroyed and damaged in each of the McDougall Creek wildfire in the West Kelowna area and Bush Creek East fire in the North Shuswap.
The province, meanwhile, is activating its Disaster Financial Assistance program, which provides funding for communities to rebuild essential infrastructure such as roads and bridges, as well as replace essential materials and cover expenses for appraisals, planning and design.
While the fire situation in the central region of the province had “stabilized,” according to Ma, Forests Minister Bruce Ralston said strong winds over the weekend in northern B.C. had exacerbated fires there.
The Cassiar, McKenzie, Fort Nelson, Vanderhoof and Fort St. James areas have been particularly affected, with new evacuation orders and alerts and heavy smoke in the area.
However, he said the arrival of more fall-like weather is a good sign.
“Across the province, temperatures are returning to seasonal norms and overnight humidity is continuing to improve, though no notable rainfall is forecast,” Ralston said.
Cliff Chapman, director of wildfire operations for the BC Wildfire Service, said the cooler weather has allowed crews to make progress on fires, but warned B.C. could still see another ridge of high pressure bring hot weather in the next few weeks.
“So we may not be finished in terms of fire growth,” he said.
“We are still looking for that — what we refer to a season ending rain event — and right now that is not in the forecast.”
While the situation on B.C.’s fire front is improving, Ma said the province remains in a dire drought situation.
“It is unlike any kind of drought conditions the province has ever faced, and in my opinion, truly is a sleeping giant of a natural disaster that we are challenged with right now — the impacts will be very, very real,” Ma said.
“I don’t say these things to scare people, but it is important for us to really understand how serious of a drought situation we are in, and why, when we take the measures we do to put in water and fish protection orders, we only do it because it is necessary.”
Ma said drought conditions remain high across the province, with effects already being felt by the ecosystem, industry, ranchers and farmers. Spawning fish could be particularly threatened by low river levels, she said, adding that action was already being taken in those areas.
The province has been working with communities on water restrictions and with water licensees on voluntary water use cuts since April, she said.
Ma said the best case scenario was a gradual return to rain over long periods of time that gently recharged reservoirs and streams.
Too little rain could result in an extended drought that lasts through the winter and into next year, while too much rain to quickly could lead to a repeat of the devastating floods and slides of 2021, Ma said.
Johnathan Boyd with the B.C. River Forecast Centre said the B.C. coast and Vancouver Island are in the best position, and could be refreshed with a few large storms.
“Where it is going to be drastic this year is that so much of the province is under drought conditions that there are going to be parts of the province, especially in the interior, that don’t necessarily normally get that much rain in the fall months,” he said.
“The drought could linger into the freeze up of winter and of course extend into the spring or summer of next year.”
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Ralston said the province is aware of the challenges farmers and ranchers are facing from drought, and has proposed a “significant” agricultural recovery plan.
“We hear their concerns, we are here to support farmers and ranchers, and we will listen and work with them as we get through this challenging time together,” he said.
Ralston said the plan would help fire-affected ranchers get their businesses back up and provide support for those in drought-stricken areas. The plan will also help livestock producers with certain extraordinary expenses not covered by existing programs or insurance.
The province has already up $5 million to help more than 100 ranchers with immediate cash-flow needs, he said.
Wednesday’s update came as some residents of one of the regions most devastated by wildfires in B.C. are touring the burned-out site.
The Columbia Shuswap Regional District says in a statement that “some areas of the community have changed dramatically” after the Bush Creek East wildfire swept through, destroying or damaging as many as 200 homes.
It says the district is conducting the tour to give a clear picture of the damage and hazards in that area to help residents prepare for their return.
As of Wednesday there were 411 active fires burning across B.C.
There have been more than 2,087 fires in the province since April 1, scorching more than 2.25 million hectares of land.
— with files from the Canadian Press