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Planned ignition not to blame for 2 wildfires merging in B.C.'s Shuswap, officials say

The Lower East Adams Lake wildfire burns in Scotch Creek, B.C., on August 20, 2023.  (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)
The Lower East Adams Lake wildfire burns in Scotch Creek, B.C., on August 20, 2023. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The B.C. Wildfire Service is trying to dispel rumours that its activities in the Shuswap region caused two aggressive fires to merge last week, saying that a planned ignition actually saved hundreds of homes from the blazes.

On Thursday afternoon, wildfire crews ignited land that sits between a stretch of power lines north of Shuswap Lake and the main body of the approaching Lower East Adams Lake wildfire. The purpose was to burn off potential fuels and protect communities below the power line, according to the wildfire service's director of operations, Cliff Chapman.

"It was largely successful," Chapman told reporters on Monday. "I want to be perfectly clear: That planned ignition saved hundreds of homes and properties along the north Shuswap."

Before Thursday, the Lower East Adams Lake wildfire was burning on one side of Adams Lake, while the Bush Creek East fire was burning on the other. Both fires were started by lightning in mid-July.

High winds that hit the area late last week caused significant growth in both fires, allowing them to eventually merge into what is now known as the Bush Creek East wildfire, officials say. The fire is still burning out of control and was last estimated to cover more than 410 square kilometres.

Some community members have alleged that the planned ignition by the wildfire service is responsible for bringing together the two fires, which have caused extensive damage.

'Our hearts go out' to those who lost their homes

But Chapman said Monday, "It was not our planned ignition that allowed the two fires in the Adams Lake area to merge."

He said that event was out of firefighters' control and instead was a result of high winds pushing the flames around the area of the planned burn.

"Unfortunately, with the wind that we know was forecast … that fire went above the control line that we burned off from and then swept back into the communities in north Shuswap," he said Monday.

"We were still successful in protecting some of those properties along the north Shuswap — in the hundreds. Unfortunately, we've also now seen the devastation the main body of that fire had in places like Scotch Creek, Celista and others, and our hearts go out to those individuals."

Properties along the coast of Shuswap Lake near Scotch Creek, B.C., were destroyed by wildfires, with some residents parking their cars on the beach before leaving.
Properties along the coast of Shuswap Lake near Scotch Creek, B.C., were destroyed by wildfires, with some residents parking their cars on the beach before leaving.

Properties along Shuswap Lake near Scotch Creek, B.C., were destroyed by wildfires last week. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Planned ignitions are used frequently in B.C. and across the globe in managing wildfires. Chapman explained that they're a necessary tool in situations like what B.C. has recently experienced, where fires are burning too aggressively to be contained with traditional firefighting techniques on the ground or in the air.

He said planned ignitions are done in close consultation with weather and fire experts, and this one was no exception.

"We did it cautiously. We did it knowing there was a cold front coming … as those winds were approaching," he said.

University of British Columbia fire ecologist Kira Hoffman said planned ignitions are done under extreme conditions when it's very dry, and there's a lot of fuel on the ground.

"You are going to have some … spot fires. As a part of that, you need to weigh the risks of not engaging in planned ignitions versus engaging in it," Hoffman said.

"Those are very calculated. They're based on weather windows, having the favourable conditions, and they're done with the utmost care."

More than 4,000 properties in the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District are currently covered by evacuation orders related to wildfires, and about 900 other properties are on evacuation alert.

Anyone placed under an evacuation order should leave the area immediately.

Evacuation centres have been set up throughout the province to assist anyone evacuating from a community under threat from a wildfire.

To find the centre closest to you, visit the EmergencyInfoBC website.

Evacuees are encouraged to register with Emergency Support Services online, whether or not they access services at an evacuation centre.

Do you have a story to share?

If you've been affected by the B.C. wildfires and want to share your story, email cbcnewsvancouver@cbc.ca.