By Richard McGuire
A stubborn ridge of high pressure over the B.C. interior has locked in hot, dry weather and pushed the fire danger to extreme levels.
The elevated fire risk prompted officials to impose a ban on the operation of any off-road vehicle for recreation purposes on Crown land in three fire centres including Kamloops, the fire centre that includes the South Okanagan.
“This step is being taken to help prevent human-caused wildfires and protect public safety,” the Provincial Wildfire Co-ordination Centre said in a news release issued Friday.
“The operation of any off-road vehicles in these regions during the current wildfire situation creates a potential wildfire risk. While jeeps, trucks and other on-highway vehicles are permitted on designated roads, they are not allowed off-road.”
The prohibition doesn’t apply to private lands or national parks. Nor does it apply to emergency responders or to agricultural, commercial or industrial users in the course of their work.
By far the largest number of fires this season in the Kamloops Fire Centre have been human caused, said Max Birkner, a fire information officer.
“Within the Kamloops Fire Centre so far we’ve had 58 confirmed lightning fires and the rest of the fires, 104, have been suspected to be human caused and are still under investigation,” said Birkner.
The major fire near Princeton that started on July 7 and reached 3,300 hectares was believed to be person caused. That fire is no longer active.
But the Elephant Hill fire near Ashcroft, which started around the same time and was also believed to be human caused, has now grown to more than 110,000 hectares and is only 30 per cent contained.
Other than those two fires, and a cluster of fires at Little Fort that reached more than 3,600 hectares, the fires in the Kamloops Fire Centre have been smaller this season.
“We’ve been fairly lucky this year with lightning strikes,” said Birkner, adding that it becomes a “real challenge” when you get 30 fires starting at the same time and firefighters can’t get all of them.
“It’s supposed to continue being extremely hot and dry,” said Birkner. “As you know, we’re dealing with some major wildfires right now, so one of our concerns is that if we do have more fires start, we’ll have to divert resources and really prioritize resources for those various fires.”
The situation is far worse in the Cariboo Fire Centre where as of Monday there were 14 “wildfires of note” burning across the region. Wildfires of note are those that are highly visible or which pose a potential threat to public safety.
The many fires in Central B.C. have caused thick smoke to fill the air across Southern B.C. from Vancouver Island to Alberta.
Winds recently have been northerly and that has sent a widespread swath of smoke to the south, said Alyssa Charbonneau, a meteorologist with Environment Canada.
Charbonneau said the northerly wind direction that has been blowing our way, as well as to the coast, is attributable to a large ridge of high pressure that has been parked over the B.C. interior and is also causing hot, dry weather.
“As long as the ridge is sitting over us and the wildfires are burning, wildfire smoke is going to be a concern,” said Charbonneau.
She said that heading into August, the weather pattern showed little change from the stagnant ridge of high pressure that has been sitting over the interior.
“The forecast for the southern interior of B.C. remains very dry, with not too much major precipitation coming as far as we can see,” she said. “Temperatures as well are expected to remain high going into (this) week.”
Environment Canada now predicts a slight cooling by next weekend with a 60 per cent chance of showers on Sunday, Aug. 13.
“As we get into the middle of the week, there is a little indication that there could be some more instability in the atmosphere, potentially that could give rise to isolated thunderstorms,” she said. “But right now the issue is that it is just so dry over the southern half of the province that it seems like it might be hard to get much of anything.”
Meanwhile, the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen (RDOS) has banned fireworks, motorized vehicles and smoking in all public wooded grass and brush areas within the unincorporated areas of the RDOS.
Campfires and open burning bans have been in effect for weeks throughout the province, and many provincial parks are currently closed due to fire danger.
The RDOS points out that although cigarettes and campfires are responsible for many fires, there are other ignition sources such as sparks from lawnmower blades and chainsaws.
“Even a carelessly discarded clear glass bottle can act as a magnifying glass and ignite tinder-dry grasses,” the RDOS says in an information bulletin.
Birkner, the fire information officer with the Kamloops Fire Centre, advises people not to use all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and motorcycles in the backcountry, even where it is permitted.
“It’s certainly not recommended at this time of year when it’s so dry out there,” he said.
Recently charcoal briquettes, which were previously allowed, have also been banned, he said.
Only propane stoves that are ULC certified are still permitted, he said.
Anyone violating the ban on off-road vehicles may be issued a violation ticket in the amount of $767. If the contravention causes or contributes to a wildfire, the person responsible may be ordered to pay all firefighting and associated costs.
To report an off-road violation, call the RAPP line at 1-877-952-7277.
To report a wildfire or open burning violation, call 1-800-663-5555 toll free or *5555 on a cellphone.
“We’re stressing abundance of extreme caution right now,” said Birkner.