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2023 wildfire season considered most destructive in BC's history: BCWS

Although we are now in December and conditions across most of BC are mild and snow is beginning to fall, the impacts of the 2023 wildfire season can still be felt across the province.

Due to the carryover of severe drought conditions in the tailend of 2022, this year is being considered as the most destructive in BC’s recorded history.

Between April 1 and October, more than 2.84 million of forest and land burned.

That doubled the $1.35 million hectares burned in 2018 and considered 10 times the 20-year average, says the BC Wildfire Service (BCWS).

The estimated total cost of wildfire suppression is $817 million, however, the total cost will be finalized by March 31, 2024.

This year also saw a new record set with the province’s largest ever wildfire. The Donnie Creek wildfire, which started north of Fort Nelson and surpassed 550,000 hectares in mid-June but grew to just over 619,000 hectares by the end of the summer.

<who> Photo Credit: BCWS </who> The Donnie Creek wildfire was finally held at just over 619,000 hectares.

Wildfires in the Prince George Fire Centre accounted for a vast majority of land burned with 2.276 million hectares burned in the northeast corner of BC.

The Kamloops Fire Centre saw the next largest amount of land and some of the most destructive wildfires, including the McDougall Creek wildfire adjacent to West Kelowna and the Bush Creek East wildfire in the North Shuswap.

Those two wildfires caused $720 million in damage, making them the most costly insured event in BC’s history and the tenth costliest insured event in Canadian history.

Tens of thousands of people across the province were forced to evacuate their homes, some coming back to nothing.

An estimated 208 evacuation orders impacted roughly 24,00 properties and 48,000 people.

More than 380 evacuation alerts were issued, impacting 62,000 properties and 137,000 people.

This year was also a truly devastating season with the death of six firefighters including Devyn Gale, Zak Muise, Kenneth Patrick, Jaxon Billyboy, Blain Sonnenberg and Damian Dyson.

“Having the fallen firefighters that we had was very impactful, I think that hit everybody hard. We hadn’t had a ground base fatality like Devyn or Zac’s for a number of years,” said Todd Nessman, manager of wildfire operations.

“The motor vehicle accident was tragic as well with the four Tomahawk crew members that were killed.”

<who> Photo Credit: BCWS/Facebook </who> Devyn Gale was 19 when she died in July and Zac Muise was 25 when he died in August.

Of the 2,245 wildfires reported, 72% were natural-caused and 25% were human-caused while the remaining 3% are not yet determined.

The BCWS says the ongoing drought conditions from 2022 coupled with an earlier-than-normal snow melt observed across the province and an abnormal heatwave in May gave way to aggressive fire behaviour very early in the season.

“Our snow melted three to four weeks early across all of the province, so we added almost a month of added drying to our fuels right at the front end of fire season compounded by anomalous temperature in May,” said Neil McLoughlin, Supt, predictive services for BCWS.

The BCWS says “unusually advanced” fire behaviour was observed as a result of the drought conditions, considering how early in the spring it was.

The relied-upon rains normally seen in June never arrived and the hot, dry weather continued.

In June and July, lighting activity increased significantly with 51,000 strikes being recorded between July 7-11, causing 339 new wildfires to start in that seven-day period.

Hot and dry conditions carried on into August with 40 new temperature records being set between Aug. 15-18.

<who> Photo Credit: NowMedia </who> View of the McDougall Creek wildfire burning across Okanagan Lake from Kelowna.

Most British Columbians will remember hearing about the dry, cold front that followed the August heatwave, which brought incredibly strong wind gusts to most of the Interior.

“The fire behaviour that resulted was significant. We had multiple fires throughout the province blow up. Those are the days where firefighting is not possible, we have to really look to protect our staff on the ground,” said McLoughlin.

McLoughlin said that the weather event was so severe that crews on the ground were reporting sightings of fire-whirls (or fire tornados), which is an very rare event but a strong indication of instability.

That wind event, which saw wind gusts up to 40-60 kilometres per hour, fed already aggressively burning wildfires including the Kookipi Creek fire near Boston Bar, the Downton Lake wildfire near gold Bridge, the Crater Creek fire near Keremeos, the McDougall Creek fire near West Kelowna and the Bush Creek East fire in the Shuswap.

During that time, the amount of smoke that smothered the Interior made some places record the worst air quality in the world, surpassing the World Health Organization’s annual air quality guideline value by more than 70 times.

As a catastrophic situation began to unfold in mid-August, the BC government issued a provincial state of emergency that lasted for 28 days.

<who> Photo Credit: NowMedia </who> A view of the aftermath of the McDougall Creek wildfire.

Less than a day later, Premier David Eby introduced a three-day travel ban to areas impacted by wildfires, including the Shuswap, the central and south Okanagan and Kamloops area.

September brought no reprieve for northern BC. Conditions were persistently warm and dry, coupled with repeated cold front passages while conditions calmed in the Southern Interior, giving firefighters a chance to gain some degree of control on several out of control fires.

Over the course of six months, more than 2,000 BC firefighters worked on the frontlines, with some working upwards to 100 and 120 days this summer.

Crews from across Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Mexico and, new this year, Brazil and Costa Rica responded to BC’s call for assistance.

When wildfire activity ramped up in June and July, around 1,750 personnel came from out-of-province to help BC firefighters.

The BCWS shared a video detailing the 2023 wildfire season, which can be viewed below:

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