Encouraging outlook for Vancouver Island’s forest fire season

Sam Laskaris, May 29, 2020

A forest firefighter works on controlling a blaze on Vancouver Island. As of the end of May there were no active wildfires in the region. (BC Wildfire Service photo)

Parksville, BC — 

Dorthe Jakobsen does not wish to definitively predict what is in store for the future.

“We try not to speculate what Mother Nature will do because we can be surprised of course,” said Jakobsen, the information officer for the BC Wildfire Service’s Coastal Fire Centre.

But Jakobsen, who works out of a department office in Parksville, is encouraged with how the forest fire season has shaped up thus far, not only throughout the province but also in the Coastal Fire Centre region, which includes Vancouver Island.

For BC Wildfire Service officials, the forest fire season begins on April 1 each year. As of Wednesday of this week, the Coastal Fire Centre had recorded 25 forest fires in 2020.

Meanwhile, across the province, as of earlier this month when the BC Wildfire Service released its last monthly update, 111 forest fires had been recorded. And it was confirmed that 83 per cent of those had been caused by humans.

BC Wildfire Service will release its next seasonal outlook report in early June.

Jakobsen said some positive news was the fact her region, a massive area which extends to Tweedsmuir Provincial Park in the west-central mainland and Haida Gwaii, did not have any current fires.

“We have had no new fires in the last week,” she said “And we have had no active fires in the last week. It was a nice quiet week.”

Jakobsen added the last forest fire in the Coastal Fire Centre was in the Squamish area of the Sea to Sky highway. That fire was officially declared out this past week.

“It had been under control for a long time,” Jakobsen said. “But they were patrolling it and monitoring it for hot spots.”

Provincial officials, including those in the Coastal Fire Centre, are hoping for a calm 2020 forest fire season.

“It’s very hard to speculate,” Jakobsen added. “Right now though we’re in a good spot and we hope that will continue.”

Jakobsen also said BC Wildfire Service employees have been forced to make plenty of changes this year. Due to restrictions in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are a number of new tactics to consider.

“We had to think about our staff and how they will be able to socially distance in their vehicles,” she said.

Jakobsen added BC Wildfire Service officials have also had to keep pandemic restrictions in mind when they send out firefighters who will be headquartered in a camp, which can sometimes include as many as a couple of hundred individuals.

But Jakobsen said this has not traditionally been an issue for those in the Coastal Fire Centre.

“We don’t typically get the really big fires, the 100,000-hectares fires,” she said.

Jakobsen also said her region has been fortunate thus far this year since the past month has included seasonal temperatures and some precipitation, negating dry conditions which fuel forest fires.

Jakobsen believes a provincial burn ban – because of COVID-19 concerns - has also kept the number of forest fires down across British Columbia this spring.

“Implementing a provincial burn ban in this way has not happened before and is unprecedented,” she said.

The ban was introduced on April 16. It has already been extended and now is in place until June 15. It could conceivably be extended again past that date. Jakobsen explained the provincial ban on fires was put in place in order to assist those who might have pre-existing respiratory problems or issues brought on by the COVID-19 disease.

“Wildfire smoke would make those symptoms worse,” Jakobsen said.

Though campfires are still allowed throughout the province, other open fires and resource management open fires are banned. Also banned is the use of all fireworks and sky lanterns.

The ban is also in place because BC Wildfire Service is hoping to keep its staff as healthy as possible for when they are required to respond to fires. Thus, reducing the amount of human-caused wildfires that could have been avoided is the goal.

Jakobsen said it is too early to detail what sort of effect the provincial ban has actually had on the number of forest fires throughout B.C. so far this year. 

“I suspect we will do that kind of analysis at the end of the wildfire season,” she said. “We start thinking about those things in the fall.”

The forest fire season is traditionally over by September or October in B.C. That’s even though BC Wildfire Service officials have their year officially conclude at the end of March and a new year begins on April 1.