The Bush Creek East Fire around Shuswap Lake is showing what is being called “one of the most aggressive, extreme fire behaviours” in modern human firefighting history in B.C.
The fire is now estimated at over 41,000 hectares in size after two fires merged Saturday night. The fire has shut down the Trans-Canada Highway 1 between Chase and Sorrento.
BC Wildfire Service Fire Information Officer Forrest Tower says the fire spread 20 kilometres in under 12 hours overnight on Friday, during what he calls “one of the most excessive fire runs that we’ve dealt with since we’ve been wildland firefighting.”
Sunday brings some relief to the crews working in the Shuswap area in the form of lighter winds and potential showers. Crews now have enough visibility to operate helicopters and air tankers, Tower says, which is a huge improvement from Saturday when they had less than one mile of visibility.
Tower says he’s confident the next 24 to 48 hours will be beneficial in terms helping crews manage the blaze. But beyond that, pre-existing drought conditions will continue to challenge efforts by BC Wildfire Service.
“All that will do is diminish fire behaviour for maybe, at the minimum, a couple of hours, maybe up to a day,” he said. “The real issue is we’re still dealing with some pretty severe drought conditions and so fuels are so dried out that, even with the lack of wind and lower temperatures, we’re still being challenged.”
For now, he says the fire is primarily holding where it burnt to in its growth state Saturday.
Tower says BC Wildfire Service is in the area right now and is working with local municipalities and First Nations to conduct a rapid damage assessment. Once that’s complete, municipalities will notify individuals whose personal properties have been impacted. Tower says it’s well known there are some widespread impacts in the Shuswap Lake area.
“It will admittedly probably take some time for the full toll of this to be known, given how quickly the impact happened,” he said.
Wildfires take toll on crews’ mental health
There have been no reported injuries during what Tower says was, “…an extremely scary night for both first responders and the public.”
However, Tower says that doesn’t include the toll firefighting efforts have taken on the mental health of members of the BC Wildfire Service.
“Our organization is just a ‘get it done’ organization, at some expense for people’s mental health,” Tower said.
The Bush Creek East fire has been particularly difficult he says, because of the sheer force Mother Nature has challenged them with.
“When the nature side of things becomes too much for humans to have any impact on at all, it’s honestly really disheartening to get back there and have to start from scratch,” he said.
As climate change and drought conditions worsen, Tower says he continues to try and offer support to his crew of, often young, workers. He’s asking the public to do the same.
“No one is failing out there, but if that’s the impressions people are getting, that’s what’s going to stick in their mind,” he said.
Stolen equipment stalls progress
With some people choosing to remain home and fight the fires themselves, Tower says his crews have been dealing with reports of stolen or moved firefighting equipment that’s adversely impacting their ability to fight the blaze.
Tower says the stolen equipment is throwing a wrench in his crews’ progress, as they’re already working with limited resources. He gave the Scotch Creek bridge as an example of a place where stolen equipment is endangering their entire operation.
“We’ve had our equipment stolen three times off of the Scotch Creek Bridge now, and that’s the way in and out of that community,” he said.
He’s asking individuals who have ideas about where equipment should be to work with a person in uniform, instead of taking it upon themselves to relocate the items.
“We are supporting community engagement in the Shuswap area and recognizing this is a large, expansive fire at this point and we, at some level, do need some support from the individuals who are there,” Tower said.
He reminds the public the firefighting season is only getting started and last year, his crews were battling flames well into October, and even into the winter months.