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Almost half of fires reported in B.C. this year caused by humans: province

Paul Black walks his dog along the North Thompson River as smoke from wildfires fills the air in Kamloops on Monday.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

As British Columbia struggles to contain hundreds of wildfires that have prompted a provincial state of emergency and forced thousands from their homes, much of the attention is focused on the dangerous combination of hot, dry weather and lightning strikes.

But humans have been responsible for almost half of the fires burning across the province – a statistic that has persisted for years despite bans on campfires and other open flames, increased penalties for people who start fires and government education campaigns. Of the 572 fires reported so far this year, about 258 fires were caused by people, according to the BC Wildfire Service. Investigators are still working to determine the cause of several of the largest and most dangerous fires.

Kevin Skrepnek, chief fire information officer with the BC Wildfire Service, said the agency is busy enough with naturally occurring fires to have to worry about people starting them as well.

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"Given how serious the situation is right now, we really implore people to be as diligent as possible in the backcountry."

Data provided by the BC Wildfire Service show in the past decade, the percentage of fires caused by people ranges between 30 per cent to 60 per cent, depending on the year.

The worst year for human-caused fire was 2011, when 68 per cent of fires were caused by people. Last year, it was 54 per cent.

John Innes, dean of the faculty of forestry at the University of British Columbia, said people generally don't set fires deliberately, but a significant number of fires are simply the result of carelessness.

"Fires are started by campfires being left unattended or not properly extinguished, cigarettes being thrown away without being put out (especially from cars), by sparks and by contact with very hot surfaces (such as an ATV going through dry grass)," Dr. Innes said in an e-mail.

Dr. Innes cited both education and increased penalties for offenders as important tools in preventing people from causing wildfires, but neither has worked effectively. He added other actions can be taken in some key areas, such as campsites, to decrease the fire risk, though they may "reduce the very values that people are looking for when they go camping."

B.C. has stepped up enforcement in recent years and introduced stiffer fines.

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Last year, the fine for ignoring fire restrictions, such as campfire bans, jumped to $1,100 – an increase of 218 per cent. Failing to properly dispose of burning substances, such as cigarette butts, now carries a ticket of $575.

In addition to the fines, people found to have started a wildfire could face one year in jail and individual fines of up to $100,000. They could also be forced to pay for the cost of firefighting.

There have been several high-profile cases in which people were charged for their role in sparking a fire.

After a fire in Barriere, north of Kamloops, caused millions of dollars in damage in 2003, Michael Barre was found guilty of accidentally starting the blaze and was fined $3,000. The same year, a Kamloops resident was also found to have started a fire, and was ordered to pay the Forests Ministry $10,000 in restitution, in addition to a fine of $1,150.

To curb the risk of people causing fires, campfires are now banned across the province and some forestry operations have been restricted. The last time there was a provincewide ban was 2015. The provincial government has also closed 64 parks and protected areas in Chilcotin and Cariboo.

Regardless of the cause of the fires, Lori Daniels, an associate professor of forest ecology at UBC, said successes in fighting fires has actually made the risk worse. Dr. Daniels said firefighting efforts over the past 60 to 100 years have allowed for denser forests with a lot of dead material on the ground. Now, when the province has hot, dry weather and lightning strikes or there is a human ignition, the fires are much more severe and fast-moving.

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"The irony is we tried to protect our forests from fire and we created a situation where they're much more susceptible and the fires are more damaging," she said.

With files from The Canadian Press

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