The most unprecedented wildfire season on record in the last decade in terms of hectares burned and the number of fires is slowly making its exit.
The 2021 fire season in the Southeast Fire Centre has torched previous years with an unparalleled amount of fires and hectares burned compared to the 10-year average for the region, said Kim Wright, information officer for the Southeast.
Between April 1 and Sept. 1 this year there were 350 fires that burned 81,155 hectares, compared to the decade-long average (for the same time frame of April 1- Aug. 26) of 249 fires burning 8,427 hectares.
It was a busy and dangerous year that saw numerous evacuation orders and alerts delivered as well, and it came hot on the heels of the snow melting in the lower valleys.
The season started quickly with a very uncharacteristic high level of fire activity in early summer, Wright explained, with a number of large, aggressive fires springing up in early July.
“This was largely due to the lack of precipitation in the spring and early summer and the heat event in late June that rapidly dried out forest fuels and led to drought conditions that we don’t usually see until mid-August, when our most active fires typically occur,” Wright said.
But the season was headed off at the pass by a significant mid-August rainfall event, gaining a reprieve after more than one month of extremely hot, dry conditions and “aggressive fire behaviour.
“The turn in weather, which occurred around when fire season typically becomes most active in the Southeast, bolstered the weeks of hard work by firefighters to bring fires that started in early July under control,” Wright said.
This meant fewer new fire starts, allowing firefighters to continue to dedicate resources to existing fires like the Trozzo Creek wildfire and the Arrow Lake complex, rather than having to divert crews and resources to other new fires, Wright pointed out.
“That said, there were a number of new fire starts in early August and initial attack crews worked extremely hard to contain and extinguish them successfully,” Wright said.
Not out of the woods
Although there has been some timely precipitation in recent weeks that increased the moisture content in forest fuels — and lowered the risk of wildfires igniting and spreading — some areas remain quite warm and dry and the danger of potential wildfires persists, Wright said.
But the lateness of the season and the prospect of cooler, wetter weather on the way has significantly lessened the threat of wildfire season at this point, Wright pointed out.
“As we move into September, the days get shorter and precipitation and humidity increase, leading to declining wildfire risk,” Wright noted.
According to Canadian Wildland Fire Information System’s interactive map the fire danger rating in the forest around Nelson and up and down the West Arm of Kootenay Lake valley remains high.
That designation still holds in the Slocan Valley, one of the hardest hit areas of the fire season, with an area from the village of Slocan to Hills residing in the very high range.
Two active and “out of control” fires are still burning in Lower Arrow Lakes valley, with another over 1,000 hectares but under control burning just east of Lemon Creek.
The Southeast Fire Centre only currently lists two fires of note in the region — Michaud Creek and Octopus Creek — with 57 considered still burning.
Resources were one of the main challenges the wildfire service encountered when faced with the “sheer amount of fire on the landscape,” Wright noted.
In mid-summer at the height of fire season nearly every fire centre across the province had a large number of aggressive wildfires burning in extremely dry conditions.
Resource needs — including firefighters, aircraft, heavy equipment and structure protection units — are moving pieces that are constantly shifted around to areas of need in the chess game of wildfire fighting.
“But when the entire province is extremely busy, there is less ability to have resources from other areas of the province come in to assist,” said Wright.
Later in July, the northern two fire centres (Northwest and Prince George) experienced a downturn in fire activity, which enabled them to free up crews and other resources to assist elsewhere, Wright explained.
Fire resources was a hot topic across the continent this year, though, with a high level of fire activity extending through the western United States, Manitoba and Ontario.
“Partnerships between the BC Wildfire Service and agencies in these other jurisdictions allow them to come to our aid when required, and we do the same,” Wright stated. “But this year, with so much fire activity elsewhere, partners were not able to provide as much assistance as they otherwise would.”
The Southeast welcomed the assistance of firefighters from Alberta, New Brunswick, Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Australia this year.