Nearly 100 wildfires are burning across B.C. following the recent wave of hot and dry weather. With the COVID-19 pandemic still upon us and primarily affecting people’s respiratory tracts, minimizing accidental wildfires is critical. We asked UBC faculty of forestry wildfire expert Lori Daniels what can be done.
Why is it even more important this year to be fire-smart?
As other experts at UBC and the BC Centre for Disease Control have highlighted, COVID-19 infections are exacerbated by wildfire smoke, which weakens our natural defences. People at high risk of the effects of COVID-19 overlap with those who are most vulnerable to the impacts of wildfire smoke: the elderly and people with chronic heart or lung disease, asthma or diabetes. Deterioration in air quality may lead to more numerous or severe COVID-19 infections, while improvements to air quality may provide protection from the potentially severe effects of the virus.
What can we expect from the 2020 fire season?
Cooler weather and fire prohibitions have slowed the provincial fire season to date. There was less camping activity due to COVID-19 closures and other restrictions. This meant there were fewer opportunities for accidental ignitions. There have also been fewer forestry operations—although forestry has been considered an essential service, activity has slowed down somewhat.
However, the peak of the season has yet to hit, and the stats from the recent August long weekend are starting to show a worrying trend. We could still have a big fire season this year. We were off to a slow start in 2018 as well, but that year we ended up with more than a million hectares of forest burned.
How common are human-caused wildfires in B.C.?
On average, 40 per cent of wildfires in B.C. are caused by people discarding burning substances such as cigarettes to campfires improperly put out to recreational vehicles or industrial activities. This season so far, there have been 351 fires in B.C. and 85 per cent of them have been caused by people, which means they could have been prevented. This percentage is also dramatically increased from last year’s 54 per cent.
As people start to venture out as part of B.C.’s phase 3 restart plan, we should all be aware of the possibility of a resurgence in wildfires.
What can we do to prepare our homes and communities for wildfires?
Government authorities took steps near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to reduce our air quality risk due to smoke. The BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, BC Wildfire Service, Metro Vancouver, and provincial public health authorities announced a plan in April to implement burning restrictions to reduce exposure to harmful smoke. This includes the temporary suspension of prescribed burns.
We can do our part by being as fire-smart as possible. We need to be vigilant when we’re out in the forest, to make sure we’re not accidentally starting fires. Even in the wet and rainy west coast, in the heat of the summer, our forests around us are very capable of burning. We should be preparing our homes and property, cleaning up yards and decks to remove potential fuel, thinning and pruning trees, and having a wildfire evacuation plan.
FireSmart BC has many other excellent suggestions, which can be found at firesmartbc.ca. Becoming fire-smart is one way we can prepare for the wildfire season—especially since many of us live in fire-prone communities.