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Amid ongoing drought, Island prepares for another brutal fire season

Island communities are getting ready as B.C. heads into wildfire season under the threat of drought.
Last June’s Cameron Bluffs fire ended up shutting down Highway 4 near Cameron Lake for long periods. B.C. WILDFIRE SERVICE

Lawns are being cut lower than usual and leaves cleaned from under bushes at Port Alberni’s provincial buildings to reduce risks, as B.C. heads into wildfire season under the threat of drought.

Randy Harrison, owner of Above and Beyond Randy’s Bobcat and Excavating Services, said he’s already noticed how dry the bush is.

“You’re crunching over leaves and branches. It’s almost shocking to see that we are talking May and they are already dry,” Harrison said. “It’s going to be an interesting summer, that’s for sure.”

Harrison, who lives at Whiskey Creek west of Coombs, is among thousands who were affected after last year’s wildfire on the steep Cameron Bluffs shut down Highway 4 below, cutting off Tofino, Ucluelet and Port Alberni from the Island Highway to the east.

Tourist-related businesses were hard hit, as was heavy industry in Port Alberni. Planes were hired to bring in medical staff.

To get ready for this year’s fire season, Harrison has already filled an above-ground pool with water, and he’s ready to borrow his neighbour’s pump again to bring water from a nearby creek to wet down his home.

With temperatures starting to climb, many communities on Vancouver Island — and in the rest of the province — are hoping for heavy rains to stave off drought, with the province’s snow pack at an average of 66 per cent of normal. The Island’s snow pack is even lower, at just 46 per cent.

So far this fire season, which began April 1, there have been just three small wildfires on the Island, but preparations are underway across the province in the event of another devastating fire season. The provincial government is deciding where to position workers and equipment, bolstering its communications and planning system and lining up equipment, including aircraft.

“We’re preparing air and ground resource — helicopters, air tankers, unit crews and initial attack crews are being brought in early,” Forests Minister Bruce Ralston said.

The province has made it easier to apply to work with the B.C. Wildfire Service, especially for people in rural and remote communities, the Forests Ministry said. That includes extending the hiring process for newcomers and asking applicants for their preferred location.

A special First Nations “boot camp” training and recruitment program is being expanded through the Coastal Fire Centre region, which includes Vancouver Island. The program includes reviewing community needs, boosting local capacity in the event of a fire, and strengthening relations between First Nations and fire centres, the ministry said.

The province has established a wildfire training and education centre at Thompson Rivers University.

Tseshaht First Nation elected Chief Ken Watts said he “would love” to see more recruitment and training in First Nations communities for wildfire fighting, and to learn from other nations who have created their own wildfire contracting companies throughout the province.

As part of an education effort, representatives of the Coastal Fire Centre plan to provide information at events on the Island as well as B.C. Ferries terminals and B.C. parks.

The province is promoting an improved B.C. Wildfire Service mobile app with up-to-date wildfire information, and an upgraded drought information portal.

Parts of B.C. will be in “unfamiliar territory” with drought if there is another hot, dry summer, said Dave Campbell, head of B.C.’s River Forecast Centre.

Drought conditions going back to 2022 mean the province is approaching this summer with “multi-year” precipitation deficits, he said.

Tofino Mayor Dan Law said his community has been in regular touch with the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, receiving regular updates that “we are following very, very closely.”

“We are very much in the loop and do appreciate how hard the minister and ministries are working to keep municipalities and regional districts updated.”

Tofino is working with regional partners on fire monitoring, suppression and water availability, and a group is looking at alternative routes in and out of the west coast of the Island, Law said.

The province is getting “well ahead of the game,” the mayor said. “I’m quite pleased with how the government has been proactive and certainly learned from last year.”

Work done last year by the Transportation Ministry to stabilize Cameron Bluffs above Highway 4 held up well through the winter, Law said. “Better than I expected to be honest.”

The Forests Ministry said mesh barriers and retaining walls installed last year have prevented debris from falling on the highway.

Tofino is in the midst of applying for another Emergency Preparedness Fund grant, and Law anticipates the total funding amount will be close to $1 million.

On the Island’s east coast, Mark Baker, mayor of Sayward, where the Newcastle Creek fire burned close to the village last year, said residents have attended two recent emergency preparedness meetings. “Everyone here is more prepared because of what happened last year. Everybody keeps looking up towards the mountains,” he said. “I’m praying for more rain.”

Sayward Volunteer Fire Department Chief Frank Morgan praised the province’s efforts to bring organizations and communities together to pre-plan, saying he has been part of numerous meetings with a wide range of agencies. “Everybody is doing their part and co-ordinating things a lot better.”

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On the web:

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• B.C. Wildfire Service: