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Forest Fires

Preparedness Series

Preparing for the threat of forest fires has never been more important than now, following the summer of 2023 which saw the burning of over 2.84 million hectares of forest and land, and forced the evacuation of nearly 50,000 Canadians.


Black skies and bright orange forests have become the unfortunate markers of a summer in BC, and the subsequent damage caused by forest fires has reached unparalleled highs.


According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), climate and weather related disasters have increased nearly 35 per cent since the 1990s. Over the past decade, 83 percent of all disasters were caused by extreme weather and climate related events such as forest fires.


Last summer's forest fire season was the most destructive season ever recorded in British Columbia. The summer of 2023 saw the burning of over 2.84 million hectares of forest and land, and placed approximately 48,900 people under evacuation order.


One example of the devastating 2023 B.C. forest fire season was the Chehalis River Fire, which burned nearly 800 hectares of forest approximately one hour north of Harrison Hot Springs. The fire burned for over two months and the B.C. Wildfire Service (BCWS) believes it to be human-caused. 


Forest fire season in B.C. typically begins in late June and lasts around 15 weeks. During this time it is essential that those living in high-risk areas are adequately prepared for evacuation.

What causes forest fires?

According to the B.C. provincial government, lightning strikes cause 60% of all forest fires and human activity causes 40% on average. 


Forest fires caused by lightning strikes cannot be prevented, however keeping track of weather and drought patterns can help wildfire experts predict and identify areas of concern. 


Forests that are dry or dead are at a much higher risk of wildfire. Pests such as the mountain pine beetle leave forests vulnerable to wildfire as they bore through tree bark in search of phloem. These beetles are commonly found across B.C. and would typically die out during the winter months. Due to increasingly warmer winters, the mountain pine beetle is wreaking more damage on B.C. forests and leaving them even more vulnerable to forest fires.


During the record-breaking 2023 forest fire season, 71% of fires were started by lightning. Fire spreads faster uphill, and spreads slower across flat ground. 


While naturally occurring fires cannot be prevented, human caused fires can be. 


There are many ways humans start forest fires, both intentionally and unintentionally. The most common ignition methods include having an open burn/campfire, industrial activity, fireworks, or discarding burning objects such as cigarettes. 


Starting a forest fire comes with extreme penalties, regardless of whether it was intentional or not. In 2009, a B.C. man built a fire on his property in the Williams Lake area, but failed to establish a fuel break. This burn then caused a large-scale wildfire, and the man was fined over $860,000 by the Ministry of Forests.


While the ruling was initially appealed, the Forest Appeals Commission (FAC) ultimately confirmed the Minister’s order in 2014. The FAC determined that the man responsible did not exercise due diligence or reasonable care to avoid the ignition.


Preparing for Forest Fires

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Preparing your home for Forest Fire season 

1) Make a household emergency plan

-Make sure to consider the needs of all members of your household

2) Prepare emergency kits

-This kit should include all of the supplies your family/household will need for 72 hours in an emergency. A video on how to make an emergency kit and what to include can be viewed here.

3) Practice your primary evacuation route and memorize others

4) Stay informed of advisories in your area

5) Manage all three areas of your "home ignition zone"

Preventative measures before an emergency occurs

1) Remove any fire hazards from your property

- Move propane BBQ’s and other combustibles away from structures.

2) Park your car facing forward and ensure there is enough gas

- This will make evacuation quicker and assure you that you will reach your chosen location.

3) Check in with your elderly and vulnerable neighbors and family, and see if they need assistance preparing their homes

Preparing for smoke inhalation

1) Properly seal windows and doors shut

2) Consider purchasing portable air purifiers

3) Limit time outdoors

4) Continue monitoring air quality updates

5) Consider wearing an N95 mask when outdoors

When evacuating

1) If on a farm or ranch, it is preferable to leave your animals unsheltered. If it’s safe and if timing permits, move them to a safer area

2) Turn off propane or natural gas

3) Leave a message in plain view that tells authorities where the residents have gone and how to reach them. Find a template here.

4) Leave a ladder within close proximity of your home to assist firefighting crews.

Returning home

1) Only re-enter your home after being given clearance to do so

2) Remove spoiled or expired food from freezers and fridges

- When in doubt, throw it out

3) Do not drink stagnant water in water tanks

4) Ensure your well water is clean before drinking


What is a fuel break?

A fuel break is an area where coniferous trees (trees with needles) and forest floor woody fuels are removed. These are fuels that burn fast and hot, compared to leafy trees and bushes which burn more slowly. A wildfire that makes contact with a fuel break is more likely to move from the treetops of pine, fir and spruce to a ground fire that can be easier to manage.


In B.C., fuel breaks are required for Category 2 and 3 open fires. Campfires fall under Category 1 and do not require a fuel break, however they should be avoided when it’s windy.

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