KAMLOOPS, B.C. — The federal government is offering support with air power and Canadian Armed Forces troops in British Columbia as nearly 600 wildfires burn across the province, displacing thousands of people and forcing scores more to be prepared to leave at a moment's notice.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan issued a joint statement Monday saying that the federal government has accepted a formal request for help from the B.C. government.
About 200 troops will be sent to help in mop-up operations to contain the spread of fires, while aircraft will transport firefighting personnel and equipment, support medical evacuations and move people in remote communities out of harm's way, the statement said.
"British Columbians can rest assured that help will be provided as soon as possible," it said.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said he was "extremely pleased" the federal government had agreed to help.
"They have always been there for British Columbia when we have made that request. They've come through and responded positively again," he said in a conference call with reporters.
Evacuation orders, alerts affecting 21,000 people
Hundreds of Canadian Armed Forces members also assisted in B.C. during last year's wildfire season, which was the worst on record in the province.
Farnworth said the province has spent $207 million so far this year fighting wildfires. The 2018 wildfire budget is just $63 million, but B.C. typically sets the budget low and then spends as much as necessary to protect people and property.
There are 27 evacuation orders affecting approximately 3,100 people, in addition to 43 evacuation alerts impacting about 17,900 people, the province said.
We're bringing in the additional resources we need to keep people and communities as safe as possible.Doug Donaldson, Forests Minister
Later Monday, the Cariboo Regional District downgraded an evacuation order for 66 properties in the Lang Lake and Murphy Lake areas to an evacuation alert, allowing residents to return home.
More than 3,400 wildfire personnel are already fighting the flames in the province, including BC Wildfire Service crews, contractors, municipal firefighters, industry personnel and out-of-province crews from throughout Canada, and from Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.
"We're bringing in the additional resources we need to keep people and communities as safe as possible," said Forests Minister Doug Donaldson in a statement.
"I thank the federal government and the Canadian Armed Forces for their assistance, and also ask British Columbians to do their part by following burning bans to prevent human-caused fires."
Lightning blamed for majority of fires
Almost 200 new fires were sparked over the weekend, although crews were hoping for a calmer week ahead, said BC Wildfire Service spokesman Kevin Skrepnek.
He blamed lightning for the majority of the 590 wildfires currently burning in the province, noting about 90 were believed to have been caused by humans.
"If you were to take the lightning out of the equation, this would have been a pretty quiet year," said Skrepnek in a telephone interview.
Human-caused fires are still a concern and he said extreme caution is mandatory in the backcountry, after 40 new fires broke out Sunday and 143 were recorded Saturday.
"Thankfully, a lot of those fires that started this weekend were in southern B.C. and pretty much all of them came with a little bit of rain," said Skrepnek.
Since the start of the fire season on April 1, the wildfire service said it has responded to just under 1,800 fires, charring almost 2,900 square kilometres of timber and bush.
The hardest hit areas are in northwestern B.C., where at least 1,200 properties are on evacuation order while alerts cover about 5,500 more, Skrepnek said.
Air quality advisories for southern half of B.C.
The Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako issued 16 new, revised or expanded evacuation orders or alerts on Sunday covering nearly a dozen wildfires, including a 315-square kilometre fire southwest of Fort St. James that has prompted an evacuation alert for that community.
Further north, a fire of similar size continues to threaten the town of Telegraph Creek and an evacuation order remained in effect.
Heavy smoke from the fires has led to air quality advisories from Environment Canada covering the Dease Lake and Bulkley Valley regions, as well as the entire southern half of B.C., including Metro Vancouver and most of Vancouver Island.
We aren't expecting lightning to really be much of a concern for the period ahead. We are not expecting a lot of storms. On the flip side of that, there's really no significant rain in the forecast.
Thick smoke was hampering visibility, affecting when and how aircraft were being deployed over some of the largest fires in northwestern B.C., but Skrepnek said ground crews were continuing to work a building guards and containing the flames.
The weather may be about to give crews a break, he added.
"We aren't expecting lightning to really be much of a concern for the period ahead. We are not expecting a lot of storms."
"On the flip side of that, there's really no significant rain in the forecast," he warned.