The precipitation and cooler temperatures the East Kootenay have seen in recent days have been most welcome and caused a decrease in fire starts and aggressive fire behaviour, but crews are still working diligently as fires continue to burn in the region.
“As everyone has probably noticed and experienced the weather changes a lot,” said Carlee Kachman, fire information officer for the BC Wildfire Service. “We are going into a cooling trend, we are seeing precipitation which is extremely helpful for fire suppression activity, however we are cautious to predict whether or not that is going to change in any way.”
There definitely have been some recent good news developments. As of 6:00 p.m. Monday, September 18 all of the 1,301 evacuees from the areas of Moyie, Newgate and St. Mary’s were allowed to return to their homes and as of 1:00 p.m. today, September 20, the off-road vehicle ban has been lifted.
“So things are looking good that way,” said Tim Neal, retired fire information officer filling in for Loree Duczek at the RDEK while she takes some well-deserved time off. “It’s definitely getting into fall and we’re looking forward to that, but there still is lots of fire out there and there’s still lots of activity for the firefighters to do.”
Neal mentioned that it’s “fairly quiet” at the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) and said he’s happy that everybody is allowed back home to get things back to normal and that much of the EOC staff are back to work at their regular jobs.
He did however add that, “people need to know that there’s still fire out there, but there won’t be extreme fire behaviour. There might be some spot fires that see some smoke but usually the crews are on them so they won’t be widespread at this point like it was a week ago.”
At the time of writing, Wednesday, September 20 the Lamb Creek fire was estimated at 2215 hectares and was considered 50 per cent contained, with 149 personnel on site with four pieces of heavy equipment and two helicopters. However a Thursday, September 20 morning update from RDEK brought the good news that it is now 80 per cent contained and considered being held. Additionally, the area restriction currently in effect around the Linklater fire will be rescinded as of 1:00 p.m.
Kachman told the Townsman that the Southeast Fire Centre currently has 45 active wildfires and so far this season 86,880 hectares have burned. This is just shy of the record high set in 2003 when 722 total fires burned a total of 87,781 hectares. By comparison, the other two worst years were 2007 when 496 fires burned 16,451 hectares and 2015 when 555 fires burned a total of 14,751.
This season saw 357 total fires, up substantially from the five-year average for this time which is 313 fires burning 4,760 hectares. Of the total fires this year in the region, 276 were caused by lightning with the remaining 81 started by humans.
“All human-caused fires are preventable so that is regrettable,” Kachman said. “However I have to say that the respect that we have received from the communities at large in respecting our bans and restrictions that we’ve had in place this fire season has been commendable and we do really thank and appreciate the public that have followed our rules and guidelines diligently. It has really helped us with our fire-suppression activities, so big thank you to the public on that one.”
Both the RDEK and BC Wildfire Service were extremely diligent in posting updates on their social media pages, keeping citizens well informed on important updates in as timely a manner as they possibly could.
“It’s not always easy to keep people informed because sometimes the information that we get here at the EOC comes too late and we have to kind of back track,” explained Neal. “The more we can let people know what we know the better it is.”
“People working behind the scenes and acting as liaisons with fire officials kept us informed with frequent updates (RDEK),” said Linda Botterill in a September 19 letter to the editor. Botterill was evacuated from her home in Monroe Lake and was just able to return on September 18. “Sometimes they weren’t able to give us the answers we wanted to hear, but were always available doing their best to provide us with the most updated information. This reduced some of the helplessness and anxiety many evacuees experienced.”
Neal said that next year’s firefighting teams will benefit from the extensive experience gained this year combatting the second-worst fire season on record.
“It’s actually a very good process because you can do all the scenarios and training you want but it really helps when you actually go live and you actually have to deal with the situation and you learn from experience,” he said. “So there’s always improvement and there’s always ways to improve it.”
Both Neal and Kachman expressed their profound gratitude and respect for the teams they work with as they continue to battle these massive fires.
“You kind of have to like the chaos,” said Neal of the RDEK team. “But it’s kind of an organized chaos, lots of activity lots of things happening at the same time. The days are long and you get very tired out.”
“There’s many players involved within wildfire,” said Kachman. “And working together and seeing everybody’s diligence and tireless effort throughout all of these stressful times has just been very inspiring. Working with the individuals within my organization and without, with people from RDEK and abroad, everybody has been so gracious and understanding with all of our work and very supportive.”