‘Extreme drought’ in area of early-season wildfire near Chetwynd, B.C.

By The Canadian Press

CHETWYND, B.C. — British Columbia’s first wildfire evacuation order of this year was rescinded within 24 hours, but local officials say “extreme drought” means the risk remains high.

The Peace River Regional District had issued an evacuation order for dozens of homes near Chetwynd, in northeastern B.C., on Wednesday, as a wildfire approached a subdivision, then downgraded the order to an alert by Thursday.

Julia Nelson, Chetwynd’s acting mayor, said strong winds fanned the flames of the early-season fire that sparked along Highway 97.

The growing blaze forced the evacuation of 67 homes, she said. Local RCMP and firefighters went door-to-door telling residents to leave immediately.

But Nelson said calmer winds and rain helped tamp down the blaze overnight.

“So, kind of acts of God just saved our community at this point,” she said.

“The fire chief was saying that this fire was burning so fast and so hot that it almost seemed like we were surprised that there wasn’t any structural damage.”

Sharon Nickel, a community engagement specialist with BC Wildfire Service, said she couldn’t say how close the fire came to the subdivision.

“But, I guess, knowing that there was an area that was on that tactical evacuation … there was a reason that those homes and residences were evacuated at that time.

“It was a confirmed interface fire,” she told a briefing hosted by the regional district.

Residents allowed to return home have been told to remain ready to leave quickly.

Nickel confirmed rain and calmer winds resulted in lower fire activity.

“It makes it more accessible for us to be able to get in there with direct attack,” she said, adding helicopters were helping about 30 firefighters on the ground.

Nickel said early-season fires aren’t uncommon in northern B.C., and the Peace Region is moving into what the wildfire service typically sees as “grass-fire season.”

She said the situation near Chetwynd is “nothing that is completely unheard of,” though it’s a bit early to see a fire that may threaten a community.

The Peace Region has been one of the driest areas in B.C. since last summer, and a recent bulletin showed average snowpack there was 65 per cent of normal.

The wildfire is evidence of the “extreme drought” the region is facing, Nelson said, adding her community is looking ahead to a long, hot fire season.

“I don’t know if we have the solutions to be able to contain and deal with that.”

She said the province has moved the base for the BC Wildfire Service’s northern initial attack crew from Chetwynd to Dawson Creek, about 100 kilometres away.

“It’s only April, and our community was extremely at risk to burn,” Nelson said in an interview on Thursday. “That fire was just a few kilometres away … and to me, that’s evidence that we do need more assistance.”

The Chetwynd Fire Department works on a volunteer basis, Nelson added.

Asked about the relocation of the base, Nickel said crews will still be stationed in Chetwynd throughout the coming summer.

“The live-in portion of the base is what has closed. Those facilities were no longer safe to be having folks living in them.”

The suspected cause of the blaze is human activity.

Mike Bernier, the member of the legislature for Peace River South, said people need to be careful in such dry conditions.

“We have no moisture in the area. We had hardly any snowpack this year. We are already at a high level of fire risk, which is evident by this (blaze),” he said in an interview at the B.C. legislature on Thursday.

Bernier said he’s worried about the rest of the wildfire season in the region. 

“We need all hands on deck watching and keeping the area safe.”

The blaze is located in the Prince George Fire Centre, an area spanning northeastern B.C. where open burning has been banned until the fall. 

Speaking at the legislature on Thursday, Forests Minister Bruce Ralston said the province is “ready” for what’s to come this summer after B.C. saw its worst-ever wildfire season last year, with more than 28,000 square kilometres burned.

The early start to this year’s wildfire season includes more than 100 active fires throughout B.C., with four new fires sparked in the last 24 hours.

— By Brenna Owen in Vancouver

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2024.

The Canadian Press

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