Drought-stricken Prince George region prepares for worst as wildfire season looms
With little rainfall so far in 2019 and an aggressive wildfire already threatening properties in the Prince George Fire Centre, local officials are deeply concerned the summer could bring further hardship in an area that’s been ravaged by wildfires the past two seasons.
The Lejac fire is half contained and mostly guarded at 236 hectares near the community of Fraser Lake after threatening several ranches over the weekend, most of them uninhabited.
Last year the Shovel Lake wildfire burned nearby, scorching a staggering 92,000 hectares while the 2017 season saw hundreds of fires roar through the region, with thousands of evacuees seeking refuge at the University of Northern British Columbia through the summer.
Officials fear this year could bring more of the same with the ongoing stretch of hot, dry weather.
"We're in a drought condition, combined with the mountain pine beetle damage, which has given us big concern for the area," Gerry Thiessen, the chair of the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako, said.
Prince George averages 621 millimetres of rain per year; in the past 12 months it has recorded just 380 millimetres according to Environment Canada statistics. The last significant rainfall was 46 millimetres in January and in the past four months only 42 millimetres has been recorded at the Prince George Airport.
Thiessen told CTV News a director of emergency preparedness has now been hired for the region to prepare for the kind of fire activity and conditions that saw poor air quality linger for weeks in the wake of last year’s fire.
The resulting smoke from last year's blazes was so dense, it blackened the sky and turned day to night.
"Most of our communities have emergency social services groups that are operating. We've really tried to look at all the scenarios and do everything we can feasibly do as taxpayers to be prepared," he said. "We have worked hard knowing we are in a different climate than we've been in the past. We've worked hard to ensure we're as prepared as possible," said Thiessen.
"This (recent) weather has obviously been challenging," said Kevin Skrepnek, B.C.'s chief fire information officer, noting that temperature records have been broken across the province this spring.
Many areas have been five to 10 degrees above seasonal averages.
But he cautioned, that it's too early to tell how the summer fire season will play out.
The 2018 wildfire season broke records for the area of land burned - a total of 12,520 square kilometres compared to 12,160 kilometres the year before.
In 2017, a record number of British Columbians were displaced by fires that threatened communities and homes, destroying hundreds of structures.
Thiessen hopes this year bucks the recent trend of escalating damage from multiple and aggressive wildfires.
"We’re still warm but hopefully we get some precipitation over the next little while and we can get through the summer."