Bob Grant photo.

Canadian Forces remain ‘last resort’ for B.C. wildfire response: province

Three Canadian Forces Griffin helicopters are arriving in B.C. Sunday

UPDATE: July 10

The Canadian Forces are confirming they are moving the three Griffin helicopters from Kelowna to a base in Kamloops to help fight the wildfires raging across B.C.

Several fixed aircrafts and rotary aircrafts will be based out of Comox and also assisting Wildfire Management in attacking the more than 200 blazes.

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The Canadian Forces are en route to Kelowna to help fight the estimated 230 wildfires burning across B.C.

However, the BC Wildfire Service said Sunday that the military isn’t likely to help with direct, on-the-ground firefighting. Instead, the personnel will provide logistical support.

“We have Canadian Forces assets that are leaning forward and pre-position to help with supporting provincial efforts,” said chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek. “There should be three Griffin helicopters into Kelowna today and there should be some larger fixed-wing aircraft in the next few days.”

Skrepnek said that the province will look to firefighting support from Alberta and Ontario, as well as from other provinces, before asking the Canadian Forces to help with firefighting operations.

“What we’re bringing in are trained wildfire crews from other provinces; both on-the-ground fire crews and specialist positions,” said Skrepnek. “We are also reaching out to leverage the contract firefighting community here in B.C – basically forest industry companies that have their own trained crews.”

In the meantime, more than 1,000 firefighters are currently battling the wildfires that have prompted the evacuation of 7,000 British Columbians in the Interior. The 2017 season has cost the province $46 million as of July 7, although Skrepnek said that is expected to grow. Annually, the province sets aside $63 million for wildfire response but often pulls from a contingency fund to supplement its response. In 2016, B.C. spent $122.9 million.

“[There are] 1,800 evacuees registered in Williams Lake that are being directed to Prince George and about 1,200 people registered at 100 Mile House,” said Emergency Management BC executive director Chris Duffy. “But those numbers are very fluid.”

Wildfires of note are burning in 100 Mile House, Williams Lake, Ashcroft, Princeton, Quesnel and Little Fort. Officials say that no one is unaccounted for at this time.

WATCH: B.C. Wildfires by the numbers

While efforts are underway to save livestock in affected areas, Skrepnek said that there are no plans to help wildlife escape the fire.

Wildfire service officials estimate just under 24,000 hecatres has already burned across the province. Wildfire Services said it’s trying to manage fatigue for their fire crews in what could be a “pretty protracted season.”

Skrepnek noted that while this isn’t a particularly early start to the fire season, two to three weeks of hot and dry conditions have contributed to the “incredibly aggressive fire behaviour” seen around the province this weekend.

RELATED: Wildlife may survive these wildfires, if they’re fast

“Friday was really the tipping point when we had a fairly significant weather system move through… that brought a fairly significant amount of dry lightening,” said Skrepnek. “That is certainly what touched off the vast majority of new fires that we are getting.”

He said that while windy conditions will help clear heavy smoke in B.C.’s interior, they will also contribute to the spread of fires.

“The smoke was a bit of a double-edged sword,” he said. “It does cause a lot of visibility issues but it also has a bit of a calming effect. If it settles in and around the fires, it traps moisture closer to the ground… which tends to minimize fire behaviour.”

A “province-wide rain event” is the best case scenario, but Skrepnek said it is “certainly not looking optimistic.”

The provincial government announced $100 million in funding to the Canadian Red Cross Sunday to help cities rebuild.

RELATED: How to help those devastated by B.C. wildfires


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katya.slepian@bpdigital.ca

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