The Canadian Armed Forces says the first troops to help in British Columbia’s wildfire fight have arrived in the province, with more soldiers, helicopters and a Hercules plane poised for deployment.
The forces said in a statement that a reconnaissance team is on the ground in Prince George in central B.C. and is working with local authorities including the BC Wildfire Service to strategize.
The arrival of the personnel and equipment will be welcomed by firefighters and communities, said the province’s Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth.
“We also know we can count on the Canadian Armed Forces to be able to assist in terms of a lot of the work that needs to be done,” he said on Monday.
“While they don’t necessarily fight the fires on the front lines, they can provide important work to be able to allow the firefighters to do the work they need to be doing on the ground.”
Farnworth said the federal and B.C. governments, including his ministry, the military and the BC Wildfire Service are currently developing a deployment plan “in terms of where is the best place and where the need is required.”
The statement issued by the armed forces said that in addition to the reconnaissance team deployed on Sunday, two companies of soldiers from 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group based in Edmonton will be available “to assist and enable firefighting.”
“The first company will likely be deploying to the Burns Lake area, at the Northwest Fire Centre, and the second will likely deploy to Vanderhoof, at the Prince George Fire Centre,” the statement said.
It said Royal Canadian Air Force aircraft will support firefighting mobility and logistics, as well as emergency evacuations.
The deployment will include two CH-146 Griffon Helicopters from 408 Squadron, and, if needed, a CC-130J Hercules from 8 Wing Trenton.
Defence Minister Anita Anand said the Canadian Coast Guard will also provide two helicopters to transport firefighters and equipment to remote locations and provide support to remote coastal communities facing restricted access due to wildfires.
Canada’s Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair announced on Friday that military help had been approved after his counterpart in B.C., Bowinn Ma, made a request for federal help amid an eruption of fire activity.
The BC Wildfire Service lists more than 360 wildfires burning in the province, with 23 listed as fires of note, where they are a threat to safety or are especially visible to the public.
A working group comprised of members of Public Safety Canada, the Canadian Armed Forces, and B.C. emergency management and wildfire officials met over the weekend to focus on deploying federal resources.
Blair said last week the federal help could include military assistance for airlift evacuations from remote locations, as well as troops trained as firefighters who can “mop up” to keep blazes from reigniting.
Transport Canada, Parks Canada, Public Services and Procurement Canada, and the RCMP are standing by to provide assistance.
Surinderpal Rathor, the mayor of Williams Lake, B.C., said Monday the arrival of the military will serve as a morale boost for firefighters and communities threatened by wildfires.
Williams Lake, a community of about 10,000 people in B.C.’s central Interior, was evacuated in July 2017 due to encroaching wildfires.
“They were welcomed by the people, by the organizations, by the community, by the city, by the authorities, and they were the greatest help,” Rathor said in an interview on Monday. “It was the best thing that could have ever happened to Williams Lake. Without their help, we would not have been able to survive.”
Provincial fire information officer Sarah Budd said the service is “grateful” to the federal government for making the aid available.
“We have a long history of working together during particularly challenging wildfire seasons of which this is obviously one,” she said in an interview Monday.
Recent data has prompted the federal government and B.C. Premier David Eby to say that Canada and B.C. are on track to record their worst wildfire seasons in 100 years.
Wildfires have consumed more than 12,900 square kilometres of land so far this year in B.C., already nearing the record of just over 13,500 square kilometres set in 2018.
Budd said the average area burned by this time of year, going back a decade, is about 1,000 square kilometres.
“It is considerably more (this year) and there are a lot of reasons for that, the kind of underlying drought conditions that we had going into the season that are the results (of) longer-term weather patterns,” she said.
B.C.’s drought bulletin shows 18 of the province’s 34 water basins are at drought Level 4, meaning harm to ecosystems and communities is likely. A further four are at the highest Level 5, when all efforts should be made to conserve water and protect critical environmental flows.
Such conditions are likely to continue, Budd added.
“We haven’t had the level of precipitation that would be required to address those underlying drought conditions, so they do persist and when we get lightning strikes the materials out there on the landscape are really susceptible to ignition.”
B.C.’s current wildfire situation includes an “aggressive” fire that exploded in size over the weekend and cut off highway access near the Central Coast, while more than a dozen new blazes have been sparked since Sunday.
The BC Wildfire Service says Highway 20 east of Bella Coola was closed Sunday evening as the fire that was discovered near Young Creek just the day before swelled to 22 square kilometres in size.
No evacuation orders have been issued for the fire.
The Thompson-Nicola Regional District says the Bush Creek East fire near Kamloops is “highly visible,” but no evacuation orders or alerts have been issued even as gusty winds have fanned wildfires around the city.
B.C. has also made a request for 1,000 international firefighters through the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, which coordinates firefighting resources across the country.
Firefighting personnel from the United States, Mexico and New Zealand are already in the province, and teams were set to arrive from Australia over the weekend.
“Some of those people are firefighters’ boots on the ground (and) some of those people are people who can slot into the incident management system that we use to plan and allocate resources,” Budd said. “It’s a range of people, but there are more coming.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 17, 2023.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press