Planning underway for this year’s forest fire season while under a public health emergency

Planning underway for this year’s forest fire season while under a public health emergency

Open fire prohibitions came into effect on April 16.

This year’s forest fire season is starting soon and while there are no fires currently burning in the Northwest Fire Centre there are fire bans on.

Most open burning activities throughout British Columbia are now prohibited. Open fire prohibitions came into effect on April 16.

Fire Information Officer with the Provincial Wildfire Coordination Centre Hannah Swift said during the current pandemic, larger open burns pose an unnecessary risk and could detract from wildfire detection and response capabilities. The current open burning prohibitions should also decrease the number of “false alarms” (where firefighters respond to a report of smoke, only to find the smoke is coming from a controlled burn and not from a wildfire).

“These open burning prohibitions will reduce demands on firefighting resources and help protect the health and safety of the public, as well as BC Wildfire Service staff. They will also help reduce the impact of wildfire smoke on air quality and public health during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she added. “These open burning prohibitions also support the BC Centre for Disease Control’s recommendation to help reduce excess air pollution in airsheds throughout the province.”

This season will be unusual for responders because of COVID-19 and Swift said they have developed protocols related to physical distancing and other precautions to support crews while they respond to wildfires.

“We are also committed to finding innovative ways to work differently, if necessary, to maintain our ability to respond to wildfires,” she said. “We are prepared for the 2020 wildfire season. Other primary goals at this time are to: keep our staff informed about COVID-19; reduce their risk of exposure; maintain a supportive, healthy and resilient workforce; and adapt our operations and responses as necessary.”

Some of the measures being taken by the BC Wildfire Service to respond to the COVID-19 situation are modifying required training and new employee orientation activities and implementing alternate ways to deliver this training where possible; postponing face-to-face meetings in favour of meetings by conference call or video conferencing; limiting travel, unless an urgent issue must be addressed and alternative means of communication are not practical; only engaging in field work activities (unrelated to wildfire response) that have a low risk of COVID-19 exposure for staff and following the advice of the Provincial Health Officer to help protect the well-being of BC Wildfire Service staff and others.

The Village of Telkwa is preparing for the season the best they can under the unusual circumstances.

“We have to do our practices through on-line methods,” said Fire Chief Laurence Turney. “So far we’ve all been able to complete the Wildfire preparation lessons online, but we’ve been unable to do much for practical practices yet, due to the social distancing requirements. We’re hopeful that we will be able to get out and work together outside relatively soon so that we can work with some of our newer people with using the tools, hoses and pumps; as well as showing them the different techniques for different wildland fires. With our grant money we have ordered some of our wildfire gear and expect to see it in the next week or so, with more coming as we get further into May.”

Smithers Fire Chief Keith Stecko isn’t sure yet what the season will look like.

“A lot of that has to be determined,” he said. “Details have to be flushed out on what that looks like, if we have crews in the field and if we are engaged in fire fighting activity what that will look like, I haven’t heard anything from the province yet.”

The Bulkley Valley Emergency Support Services is also making changes on how they operate during the current pandemic.

Normally ESS volunteers meet face to face with people affected by disaster, in order to provide them with 72 hours of essential services like food, clothing, incidentals and other services, and to register them with the province.

“At this time, ESS has changed to assessing needs and registering affected individuals over the phone whenever possible. If this is not possible, ESS volunteers can still meet affected individuals face to face while adhering to wearing recommended personal protective equipment (PPE), including: half mask respirators, face shields and gloves,” said Director Matt Herzog. “These measure are in place to protect our ESS volunteers, and the people they are meeting with.”

He added in the event of a larger emergency or disaster, they would open reception centres, but with some notable changes to allow for social distancing and other measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19. It is important to note, he said, that these measures are in place for the protection of both the public and ESS volunteers, in order to operate and provide essential services.

Communications Specialist with Northwest Fire Centre Cathy L’Orsa said it is hard to tell yet what sort of fire season the region can anticipate.

“As far as predictions for the upcoming fire season, I’m afraid the confidence in any seasonal forecast for that far in advance is very low considering the highly variable nature of the factors that influence wildfire. Fire season severity and day to day fire behaviour is very much driven by short term weather patterns,” she said.

“I can tell you that we ended fall 2019 with some pockets of deep dryness in the far north but the April snowpack numbers are well above normal up there which should balance that out. We have a fairly average snowpack for the rest of our fire centre and we are a couple of weeks behind in most areas with respect to the signs of spring. The next couple of weeks are forecast to see above-normal temperatures, so it is important that everyone heeds the prohibitions put in place by the BCWS and MoECCS to avoid smoke in the air and unnecessary risk to our first responders.”