A massive wildfire in northern B.C. shows that the province’s forests are increasingly primed for such blazes because of climate change and the El Nino weather pattern, an expert says.

The 240-square-kilometre fire, first reported late Friday on May 8 near Little Bobtail Lake southwest of Prince George, is only 15-per-cent contained, according to a Monday update from the B.C. Wildfire Branch.

Since Saturday, heavy winds almost doubled the size of the blaze and halted the progress of 270 firefighters, according to the branch.

Lori Daniels, an associate professor in the University of B.C.’s forestry faculty, said Monday that the Little Bobtail Lake fire is symptomatic of more intense and longer fire seasons the province is now experiencing. Global warming has driven this change, Prof. Daniels said.

She added, however, that it has also been fuelled by debris that has built up after decades of firefighters stopping smaller, more frequent fires that once rejuvenated forests with low-intensity burns. “I hope this is a cautionary message to anybody working in, living in and using our forests, that we have to be careful,” Prof. Daniels said. “Even the forests in what we consider a wetter, cooler forest type within the province currently are burning at a higher intensity, which also shows other parts of the province are hot and dry.”

B.C. could continue to warm over the next 100 years, according to some global climate-change models, exacerbating the forest-fire threat.

Prof. Daniels said this warming has already reduced winter snowpacks and is bringing springs that are drier and summers that have longer periods of drought. These droughts are magnified by the El Nino weather pattern, she said, which brings warmer water up North America’s West Coast and has become more frequent over the past three decades.

The amount of rain that falls in the next month will be the “telltale sign” for how intense this summer’s wildfire season will be, according to Prof. Daniels.

Meanwhile, RCMP are investigating the trigger point of the Little Bobtail Lake fire they suspect was started by someone, but authorities still don’t know whether it was an accident or arson.

Corporal Craig Douglass, spokesman for the Prince George RCMP, said that Mounties got to the fire’s point of origin on Saturday, but “then the fire came back on us so we had to get out of there for another day.”

“We’re going to get in there as soon as it’s safe to do so to continue gathering evidence,” said Cpl. Douglass Monday, noting that he didn’t know if investigators were able to return to the site Sunday.

“I would hope that this isn’t deliberately set and that’s what our hope is, that somebody wouldn’t actually want to cause that much damage,” he added. “There’s a fine line; even when it’s accidental there could be negligence involved, i.e. throwing a cigarette butt out the window during a hot, dry summer and into grass that leads up to a forest.”

Cpl. Douglass appealed to the public to contact the RCMP or leave an anonymous tip with CrimeStoppers if they know anything about the start of the fire.

“Any suspicious vehicles that were out there last Friday, any suspicious activity, anything that’s just out of the ordinary that somebody might have seen, we might be interested in,” he said.

The wildfire has forced roughly 80 people to evacuate their homes near Norman and Bobtail lakes, while those living near Bednesti and Cluculz lakes have been notified they might have to evacuate their residences soon, as well.

Any blaze larger than a campfire is now banned in the area, according to a notice from the wildfire management branch of the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources.