Fire officials in British Columbia’s Central Okanagan spent much of Sunday fighting fire with fire.
Crews tackling the 88-square-kilometre Terrace Mountain blaze, north of Kelowna, started a controlled burn on the fire’s north slope.
The blaze, which has forced 2,150 residents from their homes and put another 2,500 on evacuation alert, could be seen throughout the region, as thick plumes of smoke billowed overhead.
Fire officials say such burn-offs can come with some risks, but leaving the fire’s fate up to the winds was even riskier.
“We are lighting a fire and if a wind were to pick up, then it has the potential to spread further,” said Alyson Couch, a fire information officer with the B.C. Forest Service.
That sudden gust of wind could create a disastrous scenario in which the blaze started by fire crews is responsible for damaging homes.
“But the thing is, when (crews) do burn-offs, they won’t do them unless conditions are absolutely perfect,” Couch said.
“We don’t want to cause any more damages than what’s already been caused by the existing fire.”
Mitch Miller, a fire information officer for the Terrace Mountain blaze, said burning off existing dry fuels worked well on Sunday.
“It is a risky operation. … But there’s less risk in doing this than in letting it flare up under windy conditions,” Miller said.
“We calculated the risk and decided this is the best approach to deal with that unburned area.”
Miller said the burn-off covered about 300 hectares in an area known as Shorts Creek. It was conducted by a helicopter with an aerial ignition device, known as a helitorch.
“As this fire acts down the hill to Shorts Creek on its own, it’s burning out the roots of trees and these trees are torpedoing down the hill,” he said.
“If we just let it slowly burn down there, we’re going to get a windy day … where the wind is going to whip the fire up and throw embers out of our fire guards.”
Miller said Sunday’s burn-off was conducted to protect those currently on evacuation alert. Those residents could be forced to leave their homes at a moment’s notice if the fire spreads north.
While the burn-off was hailed as a success, Bruce Smith with the Regional District of Central Okanagan said there was no change to the region’s evacuation orders and alerts.
“At this point, we have no ability to determine when they will go home,” Smith said.
“The status of the orders and alerts is being reviewed daily with the information that we receive from fire incident command and at this point, at this time, unfortunately we’re not able to rescind any of the evacuation orders or lift any of the alerts.”
The Terrace Mountain fire was discovered July 18 and is believed to be human-caused. It is currently 40 per cent contained.
The fire was 90 per cent contained at one point, allowing evacuees to return home. But those same residents were again ordered out of their homes two days later when the fire again came down the hill.
Thousands of British Columbians were ordered out of their homes in the last month as fires threatened several communities, from Bella Coola on the central coast to Lillooet, north of Vancouver.
Residents of 61 homes in the Bella Coola Valley were allowed to return Saturday as an evacuation order was lifted.
Couch said the number of new fire starts, which reached approximately 200 per day just two weeks ago, is now down to about 20.
“The rain is helping us in reducing the number of fire starts,” she said.
“A good rainfall can reduce a fire to almost no visible smoke.”
But she said some of the fires will continue burning until winter and snow arrive.
“We don’t want to raise alarm bells by saying we’re going to see the current conditions right through to the winter,” she said.
“What it means is some of those fires will smolder under the ground for quite some time and it will take quite a bit of rain and even some snow to get rid of them.”