May 13 14 00 west flank of G90267 looking east

Northeast B.C. was parched throughout winter. It’s already on fire

Holdover fires, extreme drought and the driest winter in half a century have set the stage for an early and aggressive start to B.C.’s wildfire season, with more than 4,000 people in the Fort Nelson area evacuated this week

Early on Mother’s Day, Fort Nelson First Nation Chief Sharleen Gale headed out to make sure everyone in her community was packing an emergency bag and preparing to immediately evacuate their homes in northeast B.C. It was a cool, dry morning and the skies were filled with smoke. 

A few kilometres away, the out-of-control Parker Lake wildfire was closing in on Fort Nelson, an oil, gas and forestry town known as the gateway to the northern Rockies. It was no longer safe to stay. The fire had grown from 50 hectares to 1,700 hectares in the two days since it was first detected. Winds were expected to push the flames within striking distance of the two communities and emergency officials urged all residents to head south.

Hoping to spread the word to as many people as possible, Chief Gale texted The Narwhal information about the evacuation and the unfolding situation. 

“Need support with this while I go door-to-door getting the rest of my community to evacuate,” she wrote. 

A screenshot of the declaration she’d sent out to her community was attached.

“We understand that the decision to evacuate is disruptive and unsettling,” the declaration said, noting in bold by noon that day there would “no longer be any assistance offered to remaining members.”

In the thickening smoke, residents piled into cars, trucks and buses and drove more than four hours to Fort St. John or nearly nine hours to Prince George. By the following day, the Parker Lake blaze had displaced more than 4,000 people from their homes and scorched more than 5,200 hectares, a grim harbinger of what is shaping up to be another devastating and stressful wildfire season for B.C. and beyond.

Holdover fires from last year, extreme drought conditions across most of the province and the driest winter in half a century have set the stage for an early and aggressive start to the fire season. 

In a region where vast quantities of water are allocated annually to the oil and gas sector, the prolonged and severe drought has already prompted the B.C. government to bring in some restrictions on the industry’s water use. Meanwhile, intense and widespread wildfires will put the industry’s production plans and disaster protocols to the test.

Map of northeast B.C. showing fire situation as of May 14, 2024
New fires are burning in B.C.’s northeast as holdover fires from last year flare up again. Map: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal

‘Extremely concerned’: communities brace for the worst

Last year was the province’s worst fire season on record, with more than 2.84 million hectares burning up. But even after immediate wildfire threats subsided last fall, dry conditions persisted as temperatures dropped through the winter and little rain fell during the spring to dampen the fire-ready understory. 

Chief Gale wasn’t available for an interview, texting from the evacuation centre in Fort St. John to say she needed to focus on making sure community members were safe and had all they needed.

Cliff Chapman, BC Wildfire Service’s director of provincial operations, said crews on the ground and in the air are focused on protecting buildings and infrastructure. He noted dozens of structure protection personnel, predominantly from municipal fire departments in the province’s northeast, are working to protect the two communities.

“Those individuals are deploying sprinklers, doing structural protection [and] defending the structures in Fort Nelson from the potential of fire entering the community,” he explained at a May 13 press conference in response to questions from The Narwhal. “That includes the use of heavy equipment on the ground, putting in fire guards.” The goal, he added, was “to slow the spread of that fire.”

“Everything is focused on the protection of the communities of Fort Nelson and Fort Nelson First Nation,” Chapman emphasized. “That is where all of our resources are assigned.” 

A wildfire fighter stands on a ridge in a smoky forest that has an orange haze
Last year was B.C.’s worst wildfire season on record, with more than 2.8 million hectares burned. Photo: Jesse Winter / The Narwhal

B.C. Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Bowinn Ma told reporters she and her colleagues are worried about what might happen over the next few days. 

“With no precipitation, no major precipitation in the forecast ahead, and winds that can pick up at any time … let’s just say we are extremely concerned,” she said at the press conference.

At the time of publication, the situation remained extremely volatile. BC Wildfire Service said the Parker Lake fire had grown further, burning more than 8,000 hectares in total, and noted conditions in and around the communities “are still very receptive to wildfire and we will continue to see substantial growth of our fires today.”

Climate change is the underlying cause of extreme and early wildfires

While early fires have popped up across the province, the drought-stricken northeast is B.C.’s hotspot. 

Numerous fires have started burning across the region over the past several weeks, while dozens of holdover fires — the remnants of last year’s fires that smouldered in the ground throughout the winter, including under the snow — are flaring up. 

Holdover fires are a particular concern because northeast drought conditions remain the worst in the province. The region’s 2023 fires, such as the Donnie Creek fire, which burned an area larger than Prince Edward Island, were the biggest B.C. has ever seen. In the forests around Fort Nelson, two substantial holdover fires to the north and east of the evacuated communities now span nearly 100,000 hectares, adding to worries about the Parker Lake blaze.

Smoke through snow from a holdover fire near Fort Nelson, B.C.
Several holdover fires near Fort Nelson were active throughout the winter and are now flaring up as temperatures rise. Photo: Ryan Dickie

“In the past, the winter conditions are what put out a lot of holdover fires,” Ma told reporters at the press conference. “In this case, what we’ve seen is that due to higher temperatures and persistent drought … from last year, many of these holdover fires were not put out the way that they normally are.”

Chapman said it’s often not clear how widespread and potentially volatile a smouldering fire might be until the spring, even though some can be tracked to a certain extent through the winter.  

“That’s a big reason why we sent an incident management team up to Fort Nelson ahead of this Parker Lake fire, knowing that this cold front would likely expose where the holdover fires were still carrying heat,” he said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

The Parker Lake fire itself is not a holdover — it’s listed as human-caused and is still under investigation. That doesn’t mean it was set intentionally. A human-caused fire can include fire accidentally lit by a number of causes, such as a spark from an off-road vehicle or gunshot, industrial activity or a cigarette ember. Most fires in B.C. are caused by lightning, but earlier in the season wildfires are more likely to be sparked due to human carelessness or human activity on the landscape.

Around the world, the size and intensity of wildfires are increasing as the impacts of climate change deepen. 

As Juliette Biao Koudenoukpo, with the United Nations forum on forests, wrote last year, “climate change exacerbates wildfire risk through increased drought, high air temperatures, low relative humidity, dry lightning and strong winds.”

The conditions in northeast B.C. are consistent with research connecting climate change-related events like the 2021 heat dome that settled over the west to bigger, faster-moving and more destructive fires on the landscape. At higher latitudes, overall warming is more pronounced, stacking the odds against a mild fire season. When temperatures rise and less rain and snow falls, forests become drier year after year. In such conditions, all it takes is one spark.  

BC Energy Regulator issues early water use suspensions for oil and gas industry 

As northeast B.C. fires spread — including near communities like Hudson’s Hope, Doig River and Fort St. John — B.C.’s growing oil and gas industry is also impacted. The northeast is home to most of the province’s oil and gas activity, including extensive fracking operations and related infrastructure. Fracking operations are poised to increase significantly to supply LNG Canada’s new export project via the Coastal GasLink pipeline

Extracting gas from underground deposits uses vast amounts of freshwater — between five and 30 million litres per well, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Last year, oil and gas producers in B.C. faced early and prolonged water-use restrictions due to drought conditions. Because snowpack was so low this winter, dry conditions persist. Reduced flow in streams and creeks also directly impacts wildland firefighting operations as water resources needed to suppress fire and protect structures become scarcer.

Three oil and gas companies have reported wildfire-related impacts so far this year, according to the BC Energy Regulator, the B.C. government’s regulatory body in charge of permitting oil and gas and other energy-related activities. 

In an emailed statement in response to questions from The Narwhal, the regulator said it works closely with the BC Wildfire Service “to help ensure safe pipeline crossings and support the redeployment of equipment to sites deemed to be most at risk.” 

“We can also act as a liaison between the [wildfire service] and companies to help [firefighters] access permit holders’ fresh water storage sites for fire suppression activities,” a spokesperson said in the email.

The spokesperson did not name the affected companies prior to publication nor provide any details.

A river cuts through boreal forest under blue sky and clouds
The town of Fort Nelson, B.C., is a hub for oil, gas and logging. Photo: Ryan Dickie / The Narwhal

B.C. Energy Minister Josie Osborne said the regulator “is very much on top of things” when it comes to drought and fire. In a telephone interview with The Narwhal, Osborne said the regulator monitors industry water usage and has already issued suspensions in the northeast this year. 

“We are facing a drought and we know that snowpack conditions are lower, especially up in the Peace River,” she said. “They have the ability to limit and suspend water use and they have done so under Section 10 of the Water Sustainability Act.”

The BC Energy Regulator warned industry of potential water shortages in January but, at the time of publication, it had not yet published any directives on its website.

Speaking about the impacts of fire on industrial operations, Osborne said the province’s priority is safety and noted companies keep a close eye on the spread of wildfire. 

“People — workers — might need to be evacuated,” she explained. “They take it very seriously. I know that [from] talking with them and understanding when different parts of their operations need to cease to keep people safe and to keep equipment safe and keep the environment safe.”

The BC Energy Regulator spokesperson said companies are required to have plans for emergencies, including wildfires, and directed The Narwhal to its interactive map supporting oil and gas permit holders. 

“Site preparedness such as clean pads, prompt removal of vegetation and debris provides a robust level of preventative protection from wildfires finding a source of ignition on a site,” the spokesperson wrote. “Pipelines are buried at a significant depth below ground and are not directly affected by wildfires. Above ground piping is typically insulated and then reinforced by a metal jacket. Risks to exposed piping are minimized due to both the insulation and proper site management.”

While companies can generally protect facilities from wildfire, the risk of industry causing a fire, through a gas leak or other activity, is higher when forests are bone-dry. In mid-April, a TC Energy pipeline in Alberta ruptured, setting fire to the surrounding forest. The fire was contained fairly quickly and the cause of the rupture remains unknown.

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B.C. officials tell people to ‘take extra, extra care’

Every night since people were forced to evacuate, a group of drummers has gathered outside the North Peace arena in Fort St. John to drum and sing for healing and to offer prayers for the community and to those fighting the fires. 

While the fires in the northeast continue to burn, the forests are dry across the province. Emergency Management Minister Ma stressed the public needs to be especially careful when going out into fire-prone areas this coming long weekend.

“Even if there are no fire bans in place, folks who are going out into the wilderness to go camping, we need people to take extra, extra care,” she said.

B.C. Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma at a podium
B.C. Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma said officials are “extremely concerned” about the Parker Lake fire that is threatening Fort Nelson. Photo: Province of British Columbia / Flickr

Chapman added he hopes people do still go out to enjoy the backcountry and urged people to pay attention to their surroundings. 

“You also become our eyes and ears in some of the remote areas of B.C. and you’re able to call in these fires,” he said. “If you see something, please call it in — even if you think it’s already been called in, please call it in so that we can continue to respond as quickly as we can.”

Follow @BCGovFireInfo on X and connect with your local municipality or regional district on Facebook. Download the BC Wildfire Service app on Apple or GooglePlay for information about evacuation alerts or orders. Make a plan using B.C.’s emergency ready service and prepare a grab-and-go bag. If you see a wildfire, please call 1-800-663-5555 or *5555 on a cell phone to report.

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