BRITISH COLUMBIA

B.C. Wildfires Cost Province $80 Million -- And Counting

07/06/2015 01:13 EDT | Updated 07/06/2016 05:59 EDT
VANCOUVER - Dozens of wildfires prompted by scorching temperatures in British Columbia have forced residents from their homes, prompted extraordinary health advisories and lead to the death of one man.

There have been almost 900 wildfires across the province since the season started April 1, and 184 of those are still burning, said Chief Fire Information Officer Kevin Skrepnek.

Smoke has created a heavy blanket of stagnant grey haze over the province's south coast, setting off unusual air quality advisories across southern Vancouver Island, along the mainland coast, Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley.

Roger Quan, director of air quality for Metro Vancouver, said conditions worsened Monday as the smell of smoke permeated some parts of the region.

"This is more widespread than anything we've seen in the past," he said.

"The wind is blowing smoke from, we believe, the Sunshine Coast and the Sea-to-Sky area. There are three large fires in that area and that seems to be impacting us most heavily. But there are also fires in the B.C. Interior so we're receiving smoke from both ends."

People with heart or lung problems or medical conditions such as diabetes, as well as the elderly and the very young, are urged to remain indoors and limit strenuous activity.

Chris Carlsten, who works in the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia, said the heat and the smoke from the wildfires are a problematic combination, especially for people with breathing problems.

"The heat will make us breathe more heavily as we try to cool our bodies. That will lead to deeper inhalation of particulate matter."

He said the pattern of high temperature and fires are a sure sign of climate change.

"Metro Vancouver has some of the best air quality in the world for an urban setting. When events like this happen we're reminded that that can be reversed very quickly."

More than 800 people have been forced from their homes or must be ready to go on a moment's notice as fires burn across the province.

Employees at two pumice mines north of Whistler have also been evacuated, and officials in East Kootenay handed out nearly 500 evacuation alerts to campers over the weekend.

Forests Minister Steve Thomson said Monday that resources are being stretched as several jurisdictions across Canada and neighbouring Washington state deal with wildfires.

"We have a very, very challenging situation around the province, as everybody knows — an early start to the season, 27 new fires (Sunday)," he said, adding that this is one of the worst fire seasons that he has ever seen.

Thomson said the province won't be calling in the military just yet, but that B.C. is looking to the rest of the country and the forestry industry for more help in battling the fires.

Wayne Coulson, CEO of Port Alberni's Coulson Group of Companies, said the province has agreed to call upon the Martin Mars waterbomber, which can carry more than 27,000 litres of water, if needed.

Coulson said the Martin Mars served the province for more than 50 years, until 2014, when the government didn't renew the contract.

On Sunday, 60-year-old John Phare from Roberts Creek died while helping forestry crews battle a wildfire near Sechelt, north of Vancouver.

Phare was struck and killed while felling trees, the B.C. Coroner's Service said in a news release.

Thomson said the tragedy is a reminder of the dangers associated with fighting wildfires, and the need for residents to do their utmost to prevent fires in the first place.

More than $80 million has been spent fighting fires so far, decimating the province's annual $63 million wildfire budget.

Finance Minister Michael de Jong said the province will spend whatever is necessary to protect people and the environment.

"We are legally able to spend what is necessary to provide protection and combat what is shaping up to be one of the worst fire seasons on record," he said.

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