British Columbia’s agriculture minister says critical lessons learned from last year’s wildfires that had ranchers and producers suffering devastating losses will help save animals during another season that could force more people from their properties.
Lana Popham said Wednesday the province’s premises identification program, which was meant to trace cattle back to an operation during a disease outbreak, allowed animals to be rescued last year after evacuation orders were issued.
“As the fires increased last summer and this program seemed to have so much value we saw those numbers increase significantly,” she said of more farmers and ranchers registering for the program. “That’s allowing us to get into areas that have been identified as heavy agricultural, livestock areas and be able to assess a situation and move those animals out as needed.”
In some cases, grazing cattle remained safe in certain areas after ranchers have left due to encroaching fires, Popham said, adding 35,000 livestock were on the loose last year at the height of the worst wildfire conditions.
“This program allows them to re-enter into evacuation zones and tend to their livestock so it’s extremely important for people to be registered for this program and I think over the last two years, especially, that message has hit home.”
So far this season, 13,000 livestock, mostly cattle but also sheep, horses and pigs, have been in areas affected by evacuation orders and alerts, Popham said, adding ministry staff are working with the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association to co-ordinate alternate grazing sites, organizing emergency feeds and helping with the relocation of animals.
“We won’t often know if they’ve been lost until they don’t come home later in the fall,” Popham said. “I have heard reports of cattle that have been burned, but no numbers on that yet.”
Williams Lake is one of the hardest-hit areas, Popham said.
“The emotional toll that these farmers and ranchers are feeling is tremendous. And we saw this last year. You see some of the strongest farmers you know break down when they realize some of their animals aren’t coming home.”
After the 2017 wildfires, the federal government provided $20 million in funding to help farmers and ranchers, but Popham said her ministry has not made any requests for financial help so far this year as it awaits assessments on areas that weren’t affected last year.
The wildfires prompted the province to declare a state of emergency last week, and it is expected to be in place until next week but may be extended if necessary.
Ryan Turcott, a fire information officer with the BC Wildfire Service, said 563 fires were burning in the province, with 16 new ones starting on Tuesday.
The Shovel Lake fire, west of Prince George, is one of the largest, at more than 868-square-kilometres, and has a crew of 236 battling it, though thick smoke was the biggest challenge because visibility problems prevented the use of aircraft, Turcott said.
He said some precipitation is forecast for next week in parts of the province but only prolonged rainfall will make a difference in combating the fires.
Residents of the tiny British Columbia community of Lower Post, near the Yukon boundary, were the latest to be forced from their homes on Wednesday.
About 80 people received evacuation notices as the BC Wildfire Service warned a 40-square-kilometre blaze to the south had moved within five kilometres of the village and also threatened the enclave of Skooks Landing.
DriveBC, the B.C. government’s online service for travellers, says nearby wildfires had closed Highway 97, the Alaska Highway, from the Yukon boundary to Coal River, southeast of Lower Post.
Evacuees were being directed to the recreation centre in Watson Lake, Yukon, about 20 kilometres away.
Officials have said roughly 3,000 B.C. residents were under evacuation orders due to wildfires and thousands more on alert as hundreds of blazes char timber and bush in all areas of the province.
The Canadian Press