B.C. Wildfire Service firefighter works on perimeter of a fire, July 2019. (B.C. government)

B.C. Wildfire Service firefighter works on perimeter of a fire, July 2019. (B.C. government)

Prescribed burns on hold as B.C. prepares for COVID-19 wildfire season

More air tankers, smaller camps as season off to slow start

The B.C. Wildfire Service is gearing up for the summer season with COVID-19 restrictions, including smaller wildfire camps and single-occupancy tents for firefighters in the field.

B.C.’s 2020 wildfire season is off to a slower than average start, with 132 fires identified as of May 21, five currently burning and all under control. The 10-year average for this time of year is 172 fires.

B.C. is proceeding with its fire prevention and fuel management program, but prescribed burns are not being done due to air quality restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. Most open burning has been prohibited since April 16 as part of COVID-19 public health restrictions, except for campfires that are less than half a metre in width and height.

“Some of the interface work doesn’t require burning, and that’s proceeding,” Forests Minister Doug Donaldson said. “I visited one of those interface sites just outside Kelowna’s boundaries, where the number of stems per hectare has been reduced significantly. There are all sorts of side benefits to wildlife, to recreation to making some of the logs available to local mills.”

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As with industrial camps and activities, B.C. Wildfire Service is subject to restrictions imposed by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. Those include restrictions on vehicle and aircraft occupancy, and the burning restrictions.

“Some of our prescribed burning program, which is a very robust three-year, $30 million program that we’re just starting into, may be adapted because of the provincial health officer guidelines around high-risk areas for smoke,” Donaldson said. “That impacts people who already have respiratory illnesses and are susceptible to the symptoms of COVID-19 as well as general population at higher risk.”

Jody Lucius, superintendent for communications with the B.C. Wildfire Service, said wildfire camps will restrict their interaction with local communities when they are set up to fight fires. Smaller, five-person camps will also be used to reduce the size and crowding of traditional fire camps.

“We’ve also moved away from the use of multi-person tents,” Lucius said. “We’re going to single tents only. We did introduce some crew camp kits that will allow some crews to work and live on their own outside of a fire camp, and that will help support smaller fire camps.”

B.C. has increased its air capacity for wildfire fighting this year, with 15 per cent more capacity for dropping fire retardant and 150 per cent more water skimmer capacity, Donaldson said. That includes 20 Fire Boss skimmer aircraft and 20 spotter aircraft, as well as a pair of four-engine Avro RJ85 jets with capacity for 11,000 litres.


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