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B.C.-wide state of emergency declared as province battles nearly 600 wildfires


VICTORIA — British Columbia's public safety minister says he hopes the province's wildfire situation is not the new normal but the issue of climate change and its impact on forests must be taken into account.

"Obviously we know that climate is changing, we know that the fire season is starting earlier ... we have been doing planning earlier, getting aircraft earlier, but it is a situation that we have to take seriously, the issue of climate change," Mike Farnworth said Wednesday shortly after the government declared a provincewide state of emergency in response to hundreds of wildfires.

It's the second time in as many years that a state of emergency has been declared during the wildfire season and the fourth time in just over two decades. Provincial states of emergency were also declared in 1996 and 2003.

The BC Wildfire Service said 559 fires were burning Wednesday in all corners of the province, with 31 new starts since Tuesday. Just over 1,800 blazes have been recorded since the wildfire season began April 1.

The latest state of emergency will remain in effect for 14 days but can be extended or rescinded as necessary, Farnworth said, adding it ensures federal, provincial and local resources can be delivered in a co-ordinated manner.

In northwestern B.C., a 333-square kilometre fire has destroyed more than 40 homes and properties in and around Telegraph Creek, said Forests Minister Doug Donaldson. Nearly a dozen agencies including firefighters from local First Nations and crews from outside the province were working to save homes in the community, he said.

"This state of emergency improves our ability to increase that co-ordination as we see risk increasing in other communities," he said.

Farnworth, who is also the province's solicitor general, said the emergency was declared based on recommendations from the BC Wildfire Service and emergency management officials.

"As wildfire activity is expected to increase, this is a progressive step in our wildfire response to make sure British Columbia has access to any and all resources necessary," he added.

Kevin Skrepnek of the Wildfire Service said more than 1,500 properties were on evacuation order at midday Wednesday and at least 10,000 were on an alert, with residents advised to be ready to leave on short notice.

"Certainly, given the number of fires we have going on right now, given the fire activity we are seeing out there, and given the fact that we really see no relief from the weather, there's definitely the potential this season is going to get worse before it gets better," he said.

The province is waiting for the arrival of 200 Armed Forces' members. Skrepnek said most of them would likely be sent to the Okanagan to help with wildfire mop-up.

The RCMP said Wednesday it would send officers and equipment to assist detachments in central, northern and southern B.C. that have been most affected by fires, which could include vehicles, supplies and additional officers to help at check points or provide relief to local detachments.

By this time last year, hundreds of homes been lost to wildfires and tens of thousands of people had been displaced. The human cost has not been as high this year, but the total number of fires is greater, said Skrepnek.

The most severe losses this year have been in the Telegraph Creek area, which Donaldson visited on Tuesday.

"In the town site we saw the random nature of forest fires ... there'd be a house standing and three doors down there'd be a house totally destroyed, all that was left was the foundation and some twisted and melted metal," he said.

Crews were protecting heritage buildings in the old part of town and setting up sprinklers on the roofs of other homes, he said.

Donaldson described the situation as volatile, adding "a change in wind direction could change everything."

Environment Canada issued air quality advisories for much of B.C., all of Alberta, and parts of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as smoke from the fires drifts east. It advised children, the elderly and those with heart and lung conditions to limit their exposure.

The dense smoke also made it more difficult to find fires that were sparked by lightning last weekend, said Skrepnek.

"We can almost guarantee that there are fires out there that haven't been detected yet," he said, adding that rain is the only solution to the increasing risk but that isn't in the forecast.

"Rain is going to be absolutely critical. That is what we need to see and not just a small, quick event.  We need to see a widespread rain across the entire province to alleviate the situation."

— By Beth Leighton in Vancouver

The Canadian Press

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