FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. – A wildfire burning in northeast British Columbia has crossed over into Alberta, but B.C. crews are fighting the blaze on both sides of the border.
The B.C. Wildfire Service says the Siphon Creek blaze burning northeast of Fort St. John jumped the border into Alberta late Thursday afternoon.
Fire information officer Emily Epp says B.C. is taking responsibility for the blaze to ease the burden of Alberta firefighters who are battling catastrophic fires around Fort McMurray.
She says she doesn’t have an immediate estimate of how far the fire has travelled into Alberta, but she expects to have more information by Friday morning.
Epp says the fire was last mapped at 90 square kilometres, but she expects that it has grown in size and more than 70 firefighters and 17 pieces of heavy equipment are working on the blaze.
Meantime two other fires about 50 kilometres northwest of Fort St. John combined to form a single powerful blaze, forcing evacuations on Thursday.
The wildfire service says the two fires, previously identified as the Beatton Airport Road fire and the Stoddart Road fire, have joined.
The service says the fire now known simply as the Beatton Airport Road fire covers about 100 square kilometres, due to aggressive fire behaviour.
The blaze forced the closure of the Highway 97 about 45 kilometres north of Fort St. John in both directions on Thursday evening.
More than 100 firefighters, five helicopters and six pieces of heavy equipment are battling the wildfire with the support of air tankers.
The Peace River Regional District has declared a state of local emergency for several communities, enabling authorities to exercise emergency powers including ordering residents to evacuate.
Epp says crews have been assessing the situation and some areas were tactically evacuated on Thursday to remove those immediately threatened by the wildfire.
She did not immediately know how many people had been evacuated.
Forested communities urged to be fire smart
Fort McMurray. Slave Lake. Kelowna.
Communities nestled in the beauty of the forest, but then ravaged by wildfires, and prompting questions about what can be done to help protect them.
“Fire itself is always going to occur in these forest ecosystems,” said Kelly Johnston, executive director of the Partners In Protection Association, which runs the FireSmart Canada program.
“But we try and come up with solutions as far as mitigating the impact of those fires on communities.”
FireSmart Canada is a program that aims to help homeowners, industry and communities living at what it calls the “wildland urban interface,” the area where people and forested areas meet.
Johnston said communities can do forest management by clearing dead brush, pruning trees and spacing trees farther apart. If there is a fire, those steps could help prevent flames from climbing trees and growing higher into the air, he said.
“It keeps the fire on the ground, so there’s a higher likelihood of success for firefighters on the ground of suppressing the fire.”
Homeowners should consider roofs made of fire-resistant material, like metal, stay away from things like wood siding, and look for debris in gutters and other “nooks and crannies.”
There are three priority zones around a house: everything within 10 metres, the area 10 to 30 metres away and then up to 100 metres.
“The first 10 metres, we really focus on trying to significantly reduce the fuels, period. We really discourage the presence of conifer trees within the first 10 metres and flammable vegetation, like junipers, within the first 10 metres of homes, as well as sheds, wood piles, fences — anything that can burn and help transition a fire towards the structure,” said Johnston.
Alberta and British Columbia also follow the FireSmart program.
Larry Fremont, a wildfire education and prevention co-ordinator with Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Environment, called the FireSmart manual his bible.
Fremont said most fires are started by people and awareness needs to be raised about the risks.
But he also said fuel management — controlling what’s available to burn if there is a fire — is key.
Last fall, the province thinned out strips of forest around 11 northern communities to remove potential fuel for forest fires. Fremont said it’s working.
“There’s no question,” he said. “We’ve done, actually, a couple of case studies where we’ve had fires that have run into fuel breaks and … I don’t think anybody would deny that it’s made a difference between that fire getting away or the crews being able to stop it.”
Some breaks could be as simple as putting a walking path or a park between homes and the forest area.
However, Fremont said he has seen fires jump breaks, including rivers or lakes.
“It’s important for people to understand that all the air tankers, all the suppression equipment, people, when conditions line up and that fire’s ripping, it’s going to do what it wants to do. You won’t put it out, unless you do that work with the fuels,” said Fremont.
Fuel for forest fires was raised as a concern after a devastating blaze in Kelowna, B.C., in 2013.
A report on that fire said a record of fire suppression led to a buildup of trees, brush and other vegetation in the forests — all things that fuel a fire. It warned that the fuel buildup means there will be more significant and severe wildfires, and more fires where people and the forest meet, unless action is taken.
“Unfortunately … with climate change and our forest health conditions, these fires are burning in conditions that we’ve never seen before. And they’re burning hotter, bigger, faster and more aggressively than the fires that we’ve seen in the past and they’re becoming a big challenge.”