Wildfire crews brace for weather change, 39 new fires recorded in B.C.

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The South Stikine River fire burns in an Aug.6, 2018 handout photo provided by the BC Wildfire Service. The BC Wildfire Service says its priority is to protect homes and properties in a northwestern B.C. community already hammered by a wildfire. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-BC Wildfire Service

More fires have charred British Columbia’s woodlands in 2018 than in past years but the total amount of timber burned is well below average, yet that doesn’t mean this year is better — or worse — than the devastating 2017 season, officials say.

“It’s very difficult to directly compare one fire season to another just based on the stats alone, because the stats only tell part of the full story,” said Ryan Turcot, spokesman for the BC Wildfire Service.

Across the province, 476 wildfires were burning Thursday, including 39 new fires sparked the previous day, while 1,565 have been recorded so far this year, well above the average of 1,130 expected by this point in the season, he said.

“In terms of area burned, we are still sitting at about 75 per cent of what the average would be for this time of year,” Turcot noted.

Wildfires in 2018 have chewed through 1,180 square kilometres of timber, far below the 10-year average of 1,550 square kilometres.

“But that doesn’t tell the whole story because that doesn’t factor in things like the human impact of wildfires, the proximity of some of these wildfires to communities or to people and property,” Turcot said.

Evacuation orders and alerts are currently in place for wildfires in each of British Columbia’s six fire centres, a significant difference from 2017 when huge blazes forced thousands from their homes in south-central B.C., but conditions in other parts of the province were less extreme.

The greatest immediate concern for the wildfire service is in the northwestern corner of the province where two fires merged overnight into one 300-square kilometre blaze that has already claimed more than two dozen buildings or properties in Telegraph Creek.

Hundreds of residents have been forced from their homes while crews battling those flames brace for a shift in the weather as a heat wave is replaced by a system packing strong, gusty winds and the potential for lightning.

Environment Canada maintained heat warnings for most of southern B.C. through Thursday but cautioned that gusty winds would kick up Friday as the heat eases.

That prompted regional districts in the central and east Kootenay to issue precautionary evacuation alerts for some properties near a number of wildfires with the potential to cut road access if high winds fan flames.

Skagit Valley Provincial Park at the eastern end of the Fraser Valley was also closed because of concerns that the forecasted strong winds could push a nearby wildfire toward the park and cut off campers.

The fire danger rating is extreme across the south coast where several fires are burning, including one south of Nanaimo that has now scorched nearly two square kilometres, and another in the hills above West Vancouver that was spotted late Wednesday but was not threatening homes.

That fire was burning near the start of a popular hiking trail and its cause was under investigation.

Turcot urged extreme caution everywhere in B.C., as 3,000 firefighters and support staff work to gain an upper hand on all the fires.

“The fire danger rating across really all of the province does range from high to extreme right now which means if new wildfires are introduced to the area there’s a high likelihood that they could take off at a very rapid, volatile rate,” he said.

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