VANCOUVER — It’s too early to compare the B.C. wildfire season with 2003, the worst on record, says a forest-fire expert.
But Ken Lertzman warns the province could be in for something comparable if conditions remain dry and large swaths of beetle-killed timber are threatened.
“It’s interesting to see that we’ve got such a big and early start to the fire season,” Lertzman, director of Simon Fraser University’s School of Resource and Environmental Management, said Monday.
B.C. Forest Service crews are battling more than a dozen fires across the province, some of them fairly intense given it’s early in the season.
About 60 people are out of their homes 65 kilometres west of Lillooet in southwestern B.C. because of a 4,000-hectare Tyaughton Lake blaze.
Another 60 people are on evacuation alert in the north because of a 13,500 hectare blaze north of the Alaska highway.
And residents of Kelowna are closely watching a small lightning-caused blaze near Bellevue Creek, in Myra Canyon, that started Sunday. Crews had to cut a road to the site of the seven-hectare fire.
It’s in the same region as the Okanagan Mountain Park fire of 2003, which became a firestorm that spread quickly northward and engulfed a subdivision of the city, forcing 45,000 people to flee.
That year proved to be the worst B.C. fire season on record. It started early and hot, dry weather made for ideal conditions for fires to mushroom.
Interface fires — those in forests bordering populated areas — destroyed about 240 homes, including much of the hamlet of Louis Creek, near Kamloops, where 3,000 people had to flee.
The cost of what was dubbed the Season of Fire reached $700 million and took the lives of three pilots flying aerial tankers fighting the fires.
Lertzman said it’s too soon to tell if this is shaping up to be similar to 2003.
“It’s reasonable to be asking the questions but its early to come to conclusions,” said Lertzman.
“To create the kind of conditions we has in 2003 you need an extended drying period to get all those fuels drying out and then combine that with high winds to create the firestorm scenario and ignition sources.”
One of the differences between this year and 2003 is that the snowpack is heavier and the spring was wetter, he said.
“A month ago I wouldn’t have guessed that we were going to be asking these questions at this point,” he said. “I think a lot is going to depend on what kind of weather we have over the next month or so.”
An extended dry period could raise the fire risk from mid-July through August, he said.
The swaths of forest killed by a decade-long pine-beetle infestation through much of the B.C. Interior increases that risk, Lertzman adds.
While the trees themselves take years to dry out after dying, the dry, dead needles they drop are prime fire fuel for a couple of years until they decompose, creating a peak of risk, he said.
“To have a bad fire you need something that’s going to catch easily and coarser fuels that are going to carry the fire and allow it to go through,” said Lertzman.
“If you have stuff that died only a couple of years ago there’ll be a lot of fine fuels around and you’ll have a lot of the coarser fuels dying out.”
Forest Service fire information officer Mary Ann Leach said the Tyaughton Lake fire is about 15 per cent contained on its western flanks.
But it’s expected to spread in an easterly direction towards area dotted with cottage homes that are supposed to be evacuated.
“We expected to have winds this afternoon from 20 to 30 kilometres (an hour),” she said. “We were expecting aggressive fire behaviour and with that we anticipate we’re going to see a growth in the fire’s size.”
An evacuation order covers Marshall Lake, Liza Lake and Carol Lake, as well as Mud Creek, Tyaughton Lake and Gun Creek Road.
An evacuation alert remains in place for Gun Lake, Gold Bridge and Bralorne.
About 200 firefighters, bolstered by heavy equipment and a fleet of 13 helicopters are fighting the fire. Specialized structure-protection teams have been brought in to help protect homes.
A fire guard around the Bellevue Creek fire was supposed to be completed Monday as a team of 20 firefighters and three helicopters attacked the blaze.
The big northern fire near the junction of the Liard and Smith Rivers has drawn more than 90 firefighters and five helicopters.