Whole parts of British Columbia are shrouded in opaque clouds of billowing smoke sent churning by the hundreds of wildfires that have been raging in the province’s interior region.
With more fires burning this season than any since 2018, British Columbia is scorching, trapped in a record-breaking heat wave driven in part by climate change.
In June, the relentless wildfire season claimed the small town of Lytton, after three consecutive days of extreme heat broke national temperature records, rising to 121 degrees Fahrenheit (about 49 degrees Celsius). Two people died, the only casualties of the province’s wildfire season, which is mainly affecting sparsely populated areas.
Since April, more than 1.6 million acres have burned, data released by the province this week show. That is about 80 percent more than what would normally have been expected at this time in wildfire season, based on the province’s 10-year average.
At least 3,100 firefighters and personnel are working to suppress the flames. Powerful firefighting tanker airplanes whir about, with fleets that include helicopters fitted with a 2,650-gallon tank that can be filled in less than one minute.
The flames have forced the evacuation of thousands of homes — but some residents have refused to leave, prompting the government to against complacency.
Where are the wildfires?
The majority of the nearly 260 wildfires still burning are in the interior region, closer to British Columbia’s southeast border with the province of Alberta, and miles away from the Pacific coastline.
One massive fire has burned over 139,600 acres, and was stoked further Tuesday by gusting winds and dry conditions at White Rock Lake, about 21 miles northwest of a bigger town, Vernon. It’s one of more than 30 wildfires that are considered to pose a threat to public safety under the province’s wildfire classification system. The rest are viewed as less of a threat.
Some say government officials are not doing enough.
In Monte Lake, a town near one of the fires ranked as most dangerous, the flames have been burning since July 13, and residents criticized the province for what they called a slow response.
Rick Manwaring, a deputy minister for British Columbia’s forest and natural resource operations department, defended the government’s efforts. Two crews and one helicopter with a 1000-liter water bucket responded to the blaze immediately, he said at a news conference Tuesday.
“And this has been standard for us this unusual fire season,” Mr. Manwaring said.
The crews worked with local ranchers and residents to build barriers to protect property, he said.
A network of close to 200 helicopters, mass-water delivery systems and other heavy machinery have been dispatched across the various sites to help quell the flames.
And more than 150 firefighters from outside the province, including 100 from Mexico who arrived in late July, are assisting thousands of local fire crew members and Canadian Armed Forces personnel.
But countries that would normally be ready to assist Canada, including the United States, New Zealand, and Australia, have not been able to provide support this year because they are battling wildfires on their own soil. Pandemic travel restrictions have also complicated things.
How are the evacuations going?
As of Tuesday, about 5,400 properties were under an evacuation order. Another 31,000 are on alert for evacuation, meaning that the authorities are asking residents to prepare grab-and-go bags of essential items.
They have also been advised to have an evacuation plan for pets and livestock, and a full tank of gas in the car in case they are told to flee their homes on short notice.
The authorities have urged residents to obey evacuation orders immediately. A failure to do so, they warned, could put the lives of firefighters at risk should evacuation routes become blocked by flames.
“I know people are scared and frustrated,” said Katrine Conroy, the minister of forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development. “You simply put your life and lives of others at risk, and we can’t ask firefighters to risk their lives and face down a wall of flames because someone made an unwise decision to not evacuate.”
Ryan Reynolds, a postdoctoral researcher in household preparedness and evacuations at the University of British Columbia, said forest fires posed a complex challenge for emergency planners. Among the biggest problems is their unpredictability: In the blink of an eye, the flames can change direction and suddenly threaten evacuation routes.
The province has 14 reception centers open to support evacuees, and group lodging facilities.
Some evacuation orders have been scaled back, allowing businesses like the Monte Creek Winery, previously evacuated because of the White Rock Lake fire, to reopen.
“It feels like a normal thing for us now,” said Ashley Demedeiros, a marketing manager at the winery.
Businesses, Ms. Demedeiros said, have long since learned that people need to have a wildfire plan.
“It’s not a drill anymore,” she said.
What is causing the fires?
Over the last decade in British Columbia, an average of 58 percent of wildfires have been caused by lightning, and 42 percent by humans. But that changed a bit in 2018 — a record 3.3 million acres burned — when 70 percent of the fires were attributed to lightning, according to government data.
Of the active wildfires now taking place, more than 180 were ignited by natural causes, including lightning, and just over a dozen by human activity, the government says.
What has the health impact been?
Casualties have been low, in part because of evacuation orders and in part because of the distance between the fires and population centers.
But Canada’s environmental agency warned that the air quality has deteriorated in areas like the Okanagan Valley and Kamloops because of the smoke.
That can lead to chronic illness, including some that shorten lives, said Michael Brauer, a professor at the University of British Columbia who researches the effects of air pollution on human health.
More hot weather, unfortunately.
Temperatures in British Columbia’s Interior region are expected to rise from Thursday to Saturday. Some forecasts predict temperatures of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or above, according to weather alerts by Environment and Climate Change Canada, a government agency.
That makes it even harder to fight the fires already taking place.
When the thermometer climbs, helicopter engines can overheat and other machines can fail. That happened during the province’s record-breaking heat wave in June.