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Moving forward from B.C.'s historically destructive 2023 wildfire season


The eerie glow of a massive wildfire encroaching on West Kelowna one August evening is a picture rooted deep in the memory of many British Columbians.

The city is among several communities that faced devastating wildfire destruction in 2023.

Hot and dry conditions over the spring and summer left much of the province primed for disaster.

Between Aug. 15 and 18, more than 40 temperature records were set across B.C., according to the province.

The heat wave combined with gusting winds, leading to extreme fire behavior at the McDougall Creek, Lower East Adams Lake and Crater Creek wildfires – plus nearly a dozen others.

An estimated 208 evacuation orders were given, affecting about 24,000 properties and roughly 48,000 people.

Despite the best efforts of firefighters, hundreds of those evacuees would ultimately find themselves without a home to return to.

In total, more than 2.84 million hectares of forest and land burned, making the 2023 wildfire season the most destructive in B.C. history.

As of Dec. 19, the province has received Disaster Financial Assistance (DFA) applications from three local governments and four First Nations.

DFA is available to help local authorities cover disaster-related losses that are not covered by insurance, such as wildfire damage to public infrastructure such as roads and bridges.

2023 was also tragic year on the frontlines of the wildfires. Six firefighters were killed, including 25-year-old Zak Muise, who died while battling the Donnie Creek Wildfire, and 19-year-old Devyn Gayle, who died near Revelstoke.

Four others were killed in a crash on Highway 1. The group was travelling home after assisting with fire suppression efforts near Vanderhoof, in the Prince George Fire Centre.

The record-breaking year proves that government policies need to change, according to Dr. Lori Daniels.

“We will see future fires continue, in our landscapes, to have very large impacts,” said Daniels, who is the chair of the new Centre for Wildfire Coexistence at the University of British Columbia.

The centre aims to advance wildfire research, focusing on a proactive approach.

“So many of our communities are in fire prone environments and are vulnerable to these big wildfires,” Daniels said. “We need to reduce the fuels immediately surrounding these communities and invest in FireSmart principles at the homeowner and community level.”

Daniels pointed to the benefit of prescribed burning and diversifying tree landscapes.

Looking ahead to 2024, she worries about the implications of this year’s El Nino weather phenomena.

“A warmer, milder winter means less snow, earlier snow melts, longer summer and deeper droughts," Daniels said. "When we get to the heart of next summer, we’re already in a drought situation in much of the province, so we have two strikes against us as the moment.”


In the City of Vernon, preventive measures are already being taken to mitigate the chances of wildfire devastation.

The city has installed new sensors around the North Okanagon to detect wildfires and alert officials at record speeds.

Made by SenseNet Inc., the tool continuously monitors the environment and can identify irregularities that leads to fire outbreaks.

Federally, NDP MP Gord Johns is working to push a new bill through the House of Commons to give more financial assistance to volunteer firefighters.

“We’ve gone from 160,000 volunteer firefighters (in) 2016 to 120,000," said Johns, who represents the Courtenay-Alberni riding. "And we’ve seen a similar decline in search and rescue volunteers, so this is important to let them know they’re valued, and take a little bit of pressure off of them when it comes to inflation."

He’s asking Ottawa to approve an increased tax break for volunteer firefighters.

Currently, volunteers can receive up to $3,000 if they complete enough hours. Johns is looking to have that number increased to $10,000 as an incentive to get more boots on the ground.

So far, there have been more than 16,000 signatures in favour of his bill, which he hopes will make headway in spring during the new federal budget.

“Every corner of this country we’re getting letters from communities small or large in rural Canada,” he said. “The Liberals are listening, we’re finally building up some pressure.” Top Stories

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