Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS Thick smoke from wildfires fills the air as people stand on a beach on Kamloops Lake west of Kamloops, B.C., on Tuesday. Environment Canada’s air quality advisory and special weather statement have been extended for much of British Columbia’s south coast.

Planned burns vital to fight big fires: Official

VANCOUVER — A spokesman for British Columbia’s wildfire service says crews accidentally sparked a blaze while burning off fuel in order to contain one of many fires raging across the province’s Interior.

Kevin Skrepnek says embers ignited a nearby hillside as part of a controlled burn Tuesday against the 840-square-kilometre Elephant Hill fire, about 80 kilometres west of Kamloops.

Skrepnek says conditions appeared ideal until the winds shifted dramatically, blowing them west across Highway 97.

He says he doesn’t know the exact size of the unintentional blaze but firefighters were still working to put it out as of Wednesday afternoon.

Skrepnek says the controlled burn was successful in depriving the main fire of fuel.

He says controlled burns are an essential and effective tool for fighting wildfires and that while accidents do happen the vast majority of planned burns are successful.

“We’ve been doing this on many fires across the province up until this point,” Skrepnek said during a daily wildfire update conference call.

“The fact of the matter is that when fires get to this size, the use of controlled ignitions is one of the best tactics that we have in terms of trying to contain them. Unfortunately, in this instance the winds just weren’t in our favour.”

About 500 of the 3,300 people working for the BC Wildfire Service have been assigned to the Elephant Hill blaze, in addition to 22 helicopters and 66 pieces of heavy machinery.

There were 132 fires burning across B.C. as of Wednesday, 10 of which were added since Tuesday.

More than 850 fires have consumed 4,730 square kilometres of land since April 1, when the fire season officially began.

Conditions were expected to worsen in the coming days as southern B.C. faces a heat wave.

“Temperatures are going to be in the 30s and above in the southern part of the province and the Cariboo with that relatively low humidity, so still quite dry and still unfortunately no significant rain in sight for southern B.C.,” Skrepnek said.

Robert Turner of Emergency Management BC said more than 35,000 evacuees had registered as of Wednesday, including 10,000 in Prince George, more than 9,000 in Kamloops, and 5,000 in southwestern B.C.

Turner commended the work of the many volunteers who have donated their time and energy to help people affected by the wildfires.

“There isn’t a community in the province that hasn’t stepped up,” he said. “We really want to highlight the outstanding support that communities in British Columbia and individuals in British Columbia are providing to their fellow citizens during this time of need.”

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