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As B.C. wildfires devastate towns, emergency crews scramble to keep up with blazes

A wildfire burns on a mountain behind a home in Cache Creek, B.C. Saturday July 8th.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

More than 230 wildfires are burning across British Columbia, forcing the evacuation of entire towns and leaving emergency officials with the complex task of tracking new fires and determining where resources are needed most.

About 1,000 firefighters on the front lines will get help this week from about 300 firefighters arriving from across Canada.

Emergency officials who are determining where they will go must be mindful to prevent burnout, because the disaster is expected to continue for several weeks.

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Kevin Skrepnek, B.C.'s chief fire information officer, said the current level of fire activity is "pretty unprecedented" this early in the season. As of Monday, 226 fires burned in B.C., forcing an estimated 14,000 people from their homes.

"The fact that we declared a state of emergency across the province speaks to how serious this situation is," Mr. Skrepnek said on Monday.

"We are only 10 days into July; if we're going to see a traditional B.C. summer ahead of us, some of the hottest temperatures are still to come."

The visiting firefighters – mostly from Alberta and Ontario, but also Saskatchewan and New Brunswick – will receive an orientation in Kamloops and Prince George in which they will be briefed on B.C.'s unique terrain, water sources and fire behaviour.

They will have another briefing at a regional fire centre before being deployed to high priority fires in B.C.'s Cariboo region and southern interior.

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"We have to look at where we need to focus our efforts: what fires are posing the biggest threats to public safety, to communities," Mr. Skrepnek said. "Also, we have to look at what objectives we will achieve. Some fires will be burning so aggressively it's not actually safe to get in front of it."

The interprovincial agency in charge of sending firefighting resources between provinces said it is also preparing to send 500 water pumps, 10 planes and 300,000 metres of hose to B.C. in the next day or so.

Dave Bokovay, operations manager for the Winnipeg-based Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, said B.C. is the only province or territory in the country that has requested help from outside its borders. A pool of thousands of firefighters across the country can be deployed in other regions, but their availability is predicated on the wild-fire risk in their home provinces, he said.

The agency has made preliminary contact with counterparts in Australia and New Zealand to let them know that they may be needed in B.C. in the coming weeks, although they are not needed yet.

Usually, the first place Canadians look for such help is the United States, but Mr. Bokovay said those resources may not be available as large wildfires burn across the U.S. Southwest.

Authorities were doing their best on Monday to keep abreast of where and how fast the fires were spreading, but said the situation changes hourly and data provided are only estimates.

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Smoke from separate fires is joining together to make it more difficult for officials to get an accurate sense of the scale of the blazes across B.C., officials said during a conference call with reporters on Monday afternoon.

New fires are first identified and mapped from the air using a GPS system, but it is difficult to ascertain the full perimeter of a fire from a helicopter at that stage.

A more detailed picture of each blaze is often available only after firefighters arrive and begin mapping the edge of the flames more carefully, officials said.

Mr. Skrepnek said fatigue and burnout among firefighters are reduced by capping the number of consecutive hours and days they can work. Crew members typically work 14 days then have two or three days off. Duty days of 13 or 14 hours are typical, although some can stretch to 18.

"We take [the caps] very seriously, because our people do need to pace themselves, given the fact that there could still be a lot of fire season ahead," he said.

The province has also turned to Ottawa for help, formally requesting air assets from the Canadian Armed Forces to help move evacuees and first responders through fire zones, said Ralph Goodale, Canada's Public Safety Minister. By late Monday, eight aircraft had arrived in B.C.

"They are now in the zone, in the region, and provincial emergency management personnel working with the CAF will determine exactly where those assets need to be used," Mr. Goodale said.

B.C. has also requested access to the Public Health Agency of Canada's national emergency stockpile, which includes items such as medical supplies, pharmaceuticals and power generators. Mr. Goodale said 3,000 cots and 3,000 blankets have been sent to Prince George, where they will be distributed to evacuation centres.

Mr. Goodale said a key lesson from the Fort McMurray wildfires last year is that communication is crucial.

We need "to make sure that during the fighting of the disaster, everyone is communicating amply, and fully and accurately," he said.

Bob Turner, assistant deputy minister at Emergency Management B.C., estimated that 14,000 people have been displaced, but said it has been challenging to keep track.

"We are encouraging everyone to register with the Canadian Red Cross," he said.

Kimberley Nemrava, vice-president for the B.C. and Yukon division of the Canadian Red Cross, said her organization is still helping those in the Interior who lost their homes to flooding in May as it dispenses aid to evacuees from the wildfires.

"There's been no pause; we've moved right from floods into fires," Ms. Nemrava said.

"We're very early in the fire season, we've got another six weeks, our hottest driest period in B.C. … There could certainly be much more risk ahead."

Some families who have already left their homes were forced to move again because so many fires are popping up in so many locations, Ms. Nemrava said.

More than 2,000 evacuees have registered with the organization to receive the initial $600 per household in emergency financial assistance, she said.

Ms. Nemrava, who has worked for the organization for almost 30 years, added that climate change is exacerbating the severity and frequency of natural disasters in B.C.

"From our perspective, it used to be that you'd have a disaster and there'd be a period [before] the next disaster," she said. "Now we just feel like we're going from disaster to disaster to disaster."

Since the beginning of this year's wildfire season, 572 fires have burned an estimated 40,000 hectares.

Video: New Brunswick firefighters head to B.C. to help combat wildfires (The Canadian Press)
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News reporter

Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More

News reporter

Mike Hager is a general assignment reporter at the newspaper’s B.C. bureau. He grew up in Vancouver and graduated from the University of Western Ontario’s Huron College and Langara College. Before joining The Globe and Mail, he spent three years working for The Vancouver Sun. More

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