Early detection is vital in preparing for wildfire season, Kamloops fire expert says

The work is imperative to acting quickly to reduce damage, but forecasting seasonal fires is difficult, an expert told The Wren
Smoky skies descend on Kamloops due to wildfires burning out of control in B.C. The image feature sage brush in front of a mountain nearly erased from view because of heavy smoke.
Smoke descends on Kamloops, May 17, 2023, for the first time this fire season. Air Quality Health Index levels read 10+ at 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon. Kyra Grubb / The Wren.

As fires burn near the northeastern border of British Columbia, Kamloops Fire Rescue (KFR) responds with help, as nearly 2,000 residents prepare to evacuate, if necessary, near Fort St. John. Another 1,800 have already been driven from their homes, as more than 60 wildfires burn across the province.

KFR has already warned Kamloopsians of very dry conditions at lower elevations that are only getting drier as temperatures rise. They’ve also requested that folks report any signs of smoke or fire, use caution and practice fire safety when recreating.

Human-caused climate change continues to increase the number of extreme weather events that stoke fires, such as heat waves and drought, and many may wonder what kind of conditions are expected to increase the risk of fire this year. 

As a part of our series on how to prepare for wildfire season, The Wren spoke with a handful of experts, including Michael Flannigan, professor of wildland fire at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) and the B.C. research chair for predictive services, emergency management and fire science. 

Flannigan’s research involves the development of prediction methods to identify when and where weather that produces fire may occur, including the establishment of early warning notification systems. 

Flannigan also works with B.C. Wildfire Service staff “to address challenges related to predicting wildfire activity and behaviour, to enhance their ability to prepare for and respond to wildfires.” 

This work is imperative in acting quickly to reduce damage, but forecasting seasonal fires is difficult, Flannigan told The Wren.

“We need to know the weather, and we have trouble forecasting the weather more than a few days in advance,” he says. “Some people would argue we even have trouble with that.”

That said, fire is driven by extremes, and Flannigan points to a driving force in B.C. – human-caused climate change. 

How do fires start and spread?

Image features large smoke plumes and flames from fires burning in northeastern B.C.. In the forefront, Kamloops Fire Rescue crew members stand on top of trucks parked a distance away from the fire.
Kamloops Fire Rescue is teaming up with other fire departments in B.C. to fight multiple fires of note, some of which are burning out of control, near Fort St. John. As of May 16, 2023, 21,000 people were told to prepare for a possible evacuation. Image courtesy of Kamloops Fire Rescue.

A small number of fires generate the most area burned and generally have the most impact in the province, Flannigan explains. 

“These [fires] happen on a relatively small number of days where there’s extreme fire weather, hot, dry and windy conditions,” he says. “Research has shown that these extreme conditions are increasing in frequency due to human-caused climate change.”

There are three ingredients or “switches” needed for fires to occur, Flannigan says. The first is vegetation or what fire experts call “fuel”. Flannigan says the type of vegetation matters as well as how dry it is and how much there is. The second is ignition, fires are either human-ignited or lightning-ignited. The third is conducive fire weather, as in hot, dry and windy conditions.

“You get all three switches on, and boom — there’s fire,” says Flannigan. 

When high temperatures hit and vegetation dries out, fires start and spread easily, becoming difficult to impossible to extinguish, Flannigan explains.

“The warmer it is, the longer fire seasons are,” says Flannigan. ”This is already happening in B.C. and Alberta … fire season stretched well into October and even November last year.”

Drought, an increase in electrical storms and natural phenomena, such as El Niño Southern Oscillation, which occurs in the tropical Pacific Ocean and results in the joint warming of the seas’ surface and winds, can all contribute to the dry and warm conditions Flannigan says “set the stage or weighs the dice per se … for a bad fire season.” 

The importance of early detection 

Early detection of fires is growing to be more important with these worsening conditions, and understanding when and where fires may happen can go a long way in supporting fire response teams in more remote areas. 

“The remoteness of some fires and the fact they can occur in clusters can sometimes overwhelm an agency,” Flannigan says, emphasizing the importance of further research into fire forecasting, which he suggests is still in its early days. 

“We have some forecasting out to four to five weeks that shows some promise in terms of predicting fire weather, and that’s useful, but, we hope to build on that to extend our forecasts out to two or three months.” 

Flannigan explains early detection, up to 10 days out, is important because provincial agencies largely depend on a not-for-profit, jointly-owned corporation – The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) – to coordinate mutual aid. 

CIFFC facilitates the movement of crews, helicopters and heavy equipment across provincial lines, and even internationally when help is needed. This is another reason research into seasonal forecasting is important, as agencies like B.C. Wildfire and CIFFC rely on forecasts to determine how many people and how much equipment they need to hire on a contractual basis each season.

Flannigan floats a scenario to illustrate when early detection could be beneficial. In this scenario, fires rage in B.C., so the province leans on CIFFC, which works to see if they can import services from a province without wildfires, such as Quebec. This would be a fitting response, as long as things stay status quo. 

“That’s all fine and well,” says Flannigan. “Until things turn quickly, say, multiple big fires start in proximity to communities, and CIFFC says, ‘Well, it’s going to take at least three days to get extra crews and equipment to you.’ That’s where early detection, early warning systems, could be useful.”

Early detection, in this case, would be helpful in alerting CIFFC and other supportive response teams so they can intervene before things become unmanageable, Flannigan says. 

Flannigan is currently working to expand early detection warning systems using facts-based operations. Whereas prediction models typically rely on experience and history to determine where a fire will occur, this model relies on what the conditions are currently. Relying on a historical analog is becoming increasingly difficult due to the uncertainty associated with climate change.

“The heat dome we experienced in 2021 is a good example,” Flannigan says. “No one had ever lived through anything like that before, so they had no context to say, ‘Hey, this is like it was in ‘82 or ‘91.”

How to prepare your home for wildfire season 

While early detection is key at a larger level, there are also steps you can take to protect yourself and your property in the event of a wildfire. 

Jamie Chase, a captain and fire and life safety educator at KFR, is urging Kamloopsians to FireSmart their homes – an impactful practice that can protect your home from fire damage.

Some neighbourhoods are at a higher risk due to their proximity to grasslands and forests, Chase said, but the majority of Kamloops is “within range of embers from a big event.” 

For this reason, he says it is important to take steps to protect ourselves and others. 

“It really does depend on not just individual homeowners but entire neighbourhoods, taking those steps to, you know, clean up their area,” he says. “It’s important we all do our part to protect ourselves and our neighbours.”

Residents can request a free FireSmart assessment, where KFR will come to their home and help start the process. More information can be found at kamloops.ca/firesmart

Does personal action matter? 

Certain aspects of FireSmart, such as maintaining vegetation in yards and cleaning gutters, are things individuals can take on. However, when talking about taking real steps to curb and control wildfire, it is important to consider that the bulk of the work needed falls on governments.

That said, we reached out to Katie Neustaeter, a Kamloops councillor who sits on the Community and Protective Services Committee

Neustaeter says the city has learned a lot about the impact of climate change over the last few years, in particular, and now has a clear understanding that fire season is here to stay.  

“[Fire season] is a part of life now,” she says, “and we need to coordinate in different ways. I think the city of Kamloops has done a tremendous job of making sure that we pull in partners, that we’re looking at overlap in work and we’re ensuring that there aren’t redundancies or gaps existing.”

“I think every time we have one of these major events, we improve and learn, and there’s certainly tables and groups that are meeting to make sure that that happens to the best of our ability.”

Neustaeter went on to say one of the most proactive things council can do is suggest Kamloopsians do is register for Voyent Alert, the city’s emergency alert notification system.

“If can encourage people to do one thing in anticipation of this fire season that’s already upon us is to register for the Voyent Alert, which is your very best opportunity to get you and your loved ones to safety. Having those bags packed even now so that you can respond to that alert, whenever it may come, is important.”

She also suggests folks remain vigilant, have their grab-and-go bags packed and ready and abide by all backyard fire restrictions and bans. 

FireSmart B.C. explains on its website that wildfires aren’t always top of mind for legislators when planning and developing communities, even though the likelihood of having to rebuild is reduced when care is taken to FireSmart. 

Legislation that keeps FireSmart practices in mind, such as bylaws around FireSmart construction, and proper planning of communities to mitigate the possibility of structural damage is one of the most effective ways communities can minimize the potential risk wildfires pose.

FireSmart B.C. urges local governments, First Nations, city planners, community leaders and residents to work together to make sure that the risk of wildfire is considered when creating plans for land use and development. 

In order to bring the issue to the forefront of lawmakers’ minds, FireSmart B.C. encourages communities to consider presenting FireSmart information to city council with the help of the 2020 FireSmart Public Presentation Guide.

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