With the cost of fighting B.C.’s forest fires soaring to more than $140 million already this year, Premier Christy Clark acknowledged the province could end up spending as much as $400 million by the end of the season.
On Wednesday morning, Clark visited the area of one of the province’s most concerning fires because of its proximity to dozens of properties, the Westside Road fire near West Kelowna. There she pledged to spend whatever it takes to protect residents’ homes, livelihoods and their sense of security.
“We have a $1.7-billion (provincial budget) surplus, so I don’t think this will put us into deficit,” she said, adding the $63 million set aside for this year’s fire season was calculated based on a rolling average of the past five or six years.
“But we always know that if it goes over the set budget, we just spend what we need to.”
She acknowledged the province may have to increase the firefighting budget next year.
Statistics from the B.C. Wildfire Service show the province has spent well over $100 million in each of the last three years, including the nearly $300 million last year. In 2013, the province spent about $122 million and in 2012, $133 million.
Twelve new fires were identified in the province on Wednesday, for a total of 245 wildfires currently burning — 195 of which were caused by lightning, 40 were sparked by human activity, and the rest are still under investigation. Of the 12 new fires, 11 were caused by lightning.
In total, 295,436 hectares of forest have been ravaged by fire so far this season.
Ryan Turcot, the provincial fire information officer with the B.C. Wildfire Service, said the total number of fires has dropped slightly in recent days, largely because of cooling weather.
“The primary driver of the fires this week was due to intense lightning activity, and that seems to have died down a bit. Today, we’ve only seen 12 new fires start. On Monday, we had over 100 new fires start.”
Fire officials say the Westside Road fire did not grow overnight, after the blaze more than quadrupled in size on Tuesday.
Thanks to firefighting efforts and calmer winds through the evening, the blaze remained at an estimated 430 hectares Wednesday, said fire information officer Kelsey Winter.
She said upslope winds continued to aid efforts to keep the wildfire away from homes along Westside Road, and as of early Wednesday morning no homes had been burned.
The fire, which was sparked by lightning on Sunday, forced the evacuation of about 70 homes between the 3900-block of Westside Road to, but not including, La Casa Lakeside Cottage Resort.
However, the intensity of the fire lessened, due to both the efforts of firefighters to remove fuel from its path and light winds. It was classed as a Rank 1 fire, down considerably from the Rank 3-4 on Tuesday evening.
“Absolutely we’re making progress,” fire incident commander Glen Burgess said. “More resources showed up yesterday. So we have three times the number of crews we had out here the day before.”
Retardant lines have been established on the fire’s north and south flanks to try to contain its spread, directing its movement up steeply rising slopes to the west and away from residential areas.
“We’re pushing some (bulldozer) lines in, and we’re burning out fuel,” Burgess said. “Our priority at this point is along Westside Road, protecting the homes and the values there.”
Lieut. Ross Kotscherofski of North Westside Fire Rescue said crews are putting fire retardant on and around the decks of some homes, removing flammable items such as doormats, and generally trying to fireproof the exterior of evacuated properties as much as possible.
The general scene inside the evacuation zone seemed to be a relaxed one, with more than a dozen ministry firefighters posing for pictures with Clark, while other crews worked the controlled burns alongside Westside Road.
With little wind, there was no sign of significant stretches of open flame, and only scattered rising plumes of smoke. Certainly, there was nothing like the dramatic evening images taken over the past two days that showed large sections of burning hillside.
Asked if he thought the worst was over, Burgess said: “I would like to think so, but the reality is the weather can change quickly.”
Clark also told reporters Wednesday that a priority needs to be to restore power for more than 1,000 non-evacuated residents, and vowed the province will crack down on people who start wildfires by enacting tougher penalties for those who toss out lit cigarettes. (Nearly 400 fires so far this year have been caused by human carelessness, according to the BC Wildfire Service.)
She did not know what kind of penalties would be imposed, but noted that some folks have suggested impounding the vehicles of those caught tossing cigarettes,
“I think having tough penalties says that, as a society, and in B.C., this is something that we are really concerned about,” she said.
Meantime, another wildfire in the area — the Bear Creek fire — is now 100 per cent contained, said Winter, and an evacuation alert was rescinded for about 80 properties Wednesday. The smouldering forest is still causing smoke to blanket the Okanagan Valley, with the hazy air leading to air quality warnings from Environment Canada and the local health authority.
Many of those not directly threatened by the fire are leaving the area because of smoke, ash and power outages.
In all, 1,400 BC Hydro customers have had their power cut off due to the Westside Road fire. The power interruption stretches from just north of Lake Okanagan Resort to Westshore Estates, about 10 kilometres north of Fintry.
The evacuation order in the Okanagan followed another issued for several people late Monday for the area surrounding Bolean Lake due to an aggressive wildfire between Bolean Lake and Falkland.