Once again this year, British Columbia has declared state of emergency as hundreds of wildfires sweep across the province. Over 550 wildfires are currently burning in BC, with over 3000 people affected by evacuation orders and some 18,720 more by evacuation alerts. The fires negatively impact the province on multiple fronts: they pose a risk to public safety, to BC’s industry, and also to the province’s pristine wildlife and old growth forests. BC has been shrouded with hazy skies and poor air quality due to the smoke, and in the Fraser Valley last week the air quality health index was rated 9 on a scale from 1-10––10 being the worst quality of air in which residents are in danger of experiencing negative health effects. Smoke from BC fires has even reached Calgary.
BC has seen a number of devastating fire seasons over the years. In 1868, Barkerville was ravaged by fire when a miner, attempting to kiss one of the girls in a nearby saloon, started a brawl which upset a stove pipe and set the ceiling ablaze. Less than two decades later, in 1886, much of the city of Vancouver was destroyed when a clearing fire went out of control and decimated all but two of the 400 buildings in only one hour. During the 1950s, one notable wildfire, the Kech Wildfire, burned 225,920 hectares of land in the Kechika Valley, and another, the Wisp Wildfire, burned 1,400,000 hectares from north of Fort St. John to Alberta, with 90,000 of those burning in BC.
Wildfire season has steadily worsened, however, since the turn of the 21st century. The province has issued four states of emergency since 1996, declaring a state of emergency also in 2003, 2017, and 2018 due to wildfires that have reached unprecedented levels of devastation. The 2003 wildfire season was the worst on record, and wildfires have been on an increase since that time, with a particularly sharp increase since 2015: in 2015, 280,738 hectares were burned by wildfires, while in 2017 a staggering 1,216,083 hectares burned. Since August 1st this year there have been a series of thunderstorms across the province, worsening the already dire situation. Going forward, the weather forecast offers little comfort––weather is predicted to continue its hot and dry spell with a further risk of thunderstorms.
To date, 2018 has been the fourth worst fire season on record. The province is working with both the provincial and federal governments and is receiving the help of other countries, including Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand in an attempt to get the fires under control. This year, firefighters have responded to almost 1,800 wildfires since the beginning of April, 400 of which are believed to have been caused directly by humans. Mike Farnworth, BC’s Minister of Public Safety, says he hopes this will not be BC’s new normal, but the effects of climate change must be carefully considered in order to protect BC from further devastation.