07/30/2013 08:19 EDT | Updated 09/29/2013 05:12 EDT

B.C. Wildfire Risk, Dry Weather Could Lead To 'Firestorms'


VANCOUVER - Lou Wilde's 17 years as a firefighter did not prepare him for the "firestorm" that ravaged Kelowna a decade ago this summer.

"You can find pictures on the Internet of huge walls of fire coming down the valley, but that's not what burned neighbourhoods down," said Kelowna's Deputy Chief, recalling how just a few embers from those walls were enough to engulf a home.

More than 2,400 wildfires ravaged B.C. in the summer of 2003. As many as 45,000 thousand people were forced to flee as flames licked at doorsteps, eventually burning through almost 250,000 hectares and leaving hundreds homeless. Three pilots died fighting the flames.

The season was the worst ever for forest fires in B.C., costing an estimated $700 million.

Despite everything they've learned in fighting fires, a record dry spell for this July has Wilde worried that more firestorms may be on the way.

"We've got the ideal weather for it right now," he said. "This week alone, over the weekend, we've had two or three small grass fires that we've been able to get on right away and hold at bay, but all it takes is a little bit of wind or a steep hillside (and) we could be looking at evacuations."

"It happens that fast," he said.

"There's no guarantee that there won't be another 2003," said Brian Simpson, executive director of the provincial Wildfire Management Branch.

Although Simpson said this fire season got off to a slow start, and the number of fires is still slightly below average, he noted areas like the coast are experiencing unusually dry conditions. Tuesday marked the 33rd consecutive day of sunshine in Metro Vancouver, making July the sunniest month on record.

"Coastal fires tend to be very difficult to control because of the heavy, heavy fuels that you have to contend with," Simpson said. "It takes a lot more energy to put one of those fires out once you get going, and that can be costly on our resource capacity."

But Simpson takes comfort that many lessons were learned as a result of 2003, and the government is now much more prepared to deal with wildfires.

Resources have been substantially increased, including eight new 20-person unit crews and 30 more initial attack crews, Simpson said. The entire fleet, including vehicles and equipment, has also been modernized, so it is faster and more cost-effective, he said.

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Stephanie Salsnek lives about three kilometres from the White Lake blaze near Okanagan Falls that started last weekend and was fully contained by Tuesday. An evacuation alert for about a dozen homes was lifted. Salsnek said she was blown away by the effectiveness of the firefighting team.

"When you see that aerial ballet of the bombers and, later on, the choppers, you realize they know exactly what they are doing," she said.

Simpson said vast improvements in communication were tested in 2006, when a fire bore down on Tumbler Ridge.

We "evacuated the whole community without incident, looked after all those people and all the issues that come with that, and then returned them back to their community," he said. "For me, that was a turning point, knowing that we had done that very efficiently (and) very effectively."

Simpson said communities are also much safer because of a $62 million investment in localized protection plans and fire buffer zones.

"We have had fires on the doorsteps of communities where treatments had been completed, and those treatments made the difference," he said.

Minister of Forests and Kelowna MLA Steve Thomson said his family farm had to be evacuated during the 2003 fire and he can still remember the stress and fear that swept through the city.

He said that although a lot has been done to protect the province, the public plays a very large role in prevention.

"We still have a high percentage, and too high a percentage, of fires that start by human activity," he said. "We need to continue to communicate, continue to get the message out, that public responsibility can really assist us here."

One of the most devastating fires in 2003 started on July 31, and was caused by a discarded cigarette. The community of Barriere, B.C., was devastated by the fire, which destroyed 72 homes and 9 businesses, including the sawmill, town's largest employer.

Resident Mike Barre dropped the cigarette and failed to put it out properly. By the next day, 3,800 people were forced to evacuate. He was eventually fined $3,000 for negligence.

But Barriere Councillor Bill Kershaw, who watched a life preserver by his pool melt from the heat as flames tore through the back of his acreage, said there is no animosity towards Barre.

"I think he probably feels the worst of everybody, because nobody intentionally does something like that," Kershaw said. "It was carelessness I guess on his part, but it's just something that got away, and we've probably all done something that could have caused it."

Although Kershaw said the fire forced young families to leave Barriere, and many people felt the negative impacts from the loss of the sawmill, the community has recovered. In fact, Kershaw said part of the motivation behind Barriere becoming a city in 2007 was the fire.

"One of the things that we found during, and after, the fire is that we had no total form of governance," he said. "The governance was coming from the outside, and they did a good job without any doubt, but we always felt that we could look after ourselves."

Kershaw said he thinks that, if a season like 2003 were to happen again, they would be much more prepared. However, he still thinks more can be done.

Simpson said he could not agree more with critics who argue fire management needs to be better, even after all of the improvements, but the province is "moving in the right direction."

Firefighter Wilde said the Kelowna fire has provided absolutely invaluable experience to his team, who are now much better at assessing and responding to wildfires.

"You can take all the training you want," he said, "but there's nothing like experience."

As more fires are sparked this summer, Simpson said B.C.'s long stretches without rainfall are very concerning.

"We need to plan for the worst, and hopefully it turns out a lot better," he said. "We'll see what the month of August brings."