The out of control Sparks Lake fire burning forests on June 30, 2021. BC WILDFIRE SERVICE

The out of control Sparks Lake fire burning forests on June 30, 2021. BC WILDFIRE SERVICE

Summer wildfires twice as costly than 2017

The Thompson-Nicola Regional District spent more than $5.2 million – twice as much as in 2017 – dealing with this summer’s wildfires, which wiped out Lytton and Monte Lake and threatened other cities and towns across the region including Ashcroft, Spences Bridge and 70 Mile House.

Kevin Skrepnek, emergency coordinator for TNRD, said the regional district’s Emergency Operations Centre was open for 9,600 hours during the wildfires, which were sparked in late June on the heels of an extreme heat dome in B.C. Throughout the summer, the TNRD’s EOC issued 293 evacuation orders and alerts, compared with only 45 in the 2017 wildfires.

“2017 was obviously a different season,” Skrepnek told the board Oct. 21. “We did have a complex of fires in the North Thompson but the main incident of concern was Elephant Hill, whereas in 2021 we had a much more widespread event going on with a number of fires of major consequence burning simultaneously.”

He said the higher costs were likely a result of the increased ground being burned, as well as the need to hire contractors to provide security and traffic and access controls to those areas. As of Friday, Oct. 22, there were 164 structures reportedly lost but Skrepnek noted the regional district is still tallying its losses. “We are still becoming aware of structures that were destroyed,” he said.

More than 100 people are without a home right now, he said. However, the province has extended ESS coverage until Nov. 30 to provide evacuees with weekly support such as cold-weather clothing, food, incidentals and lodging.

Skrepnek said the EOC plans to work with First Nations, municipalities and the province to see what they can do differently next time. “A lot of these fires could care less what artificial boundaries we put on a map.”

His presentation to the board came ahead of a discussion with the BC Wildfire Service and the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD), which drew a lot of questions from directors about the handling of future wildfires.

Kamloops Coun. Mike O’Reilly said some efficiencies could be found in building capacity, noting contractors were sitting around with a full crew every day waiting to be put to work, while Barriere Mayor Ward Stamer asked what BC Wildfire would do to get more boots on the ground, including ranchers and homeowners, to start fighting fires before 10 a.m.

“We should be looking at trying to build up these capacities like we did in the past,” Stamer said. “How many fires did not get actioned on in 24 hours because people told they couldn’t action it?”

Ian Meier, executive director of BC Wildfire, said firefighters worked around the clock on the fires this summer but noted attack plans made at night could be shifted again at 4 a.m. depending on fire behaviour, making it difficult to let crews know before 10 a.m. if they will be needed.

He added there were a few close calls last summer.

“We are taking a hard look at all our processes,” Meier said. “There were circumstances where we put too much risk on resources going out there because we didn’t have a solid plan. I don’t want to be going to anyone’s funeral because we decided to rush out the door in a very volatile situation.”

He added BC Wildfire Service is working with local groups, including BC Cattlemen’s Association to establish training, as well as with First Nations and Community Forests to secure contractors.

“The decisions and involvement of locals is critical to our success moving forward,” he said. “We have to be able to assemble local capacity on the fly.”

Eamon O’Donaghue, assistant deputy ministry of FLNRORD, said the ministry is also considering more prescribed fires and penalties for industries that leave too much waste behind. “We’re working through those issues right now.”

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