Bushfires are tearing across regions in the western US and Canada, forcing over 15,000 residents to flee their homes. Hot, dry and windy conditions are fuelling the fires, many of which are expected to grow over the coming days. Discouragingly, bushfire season has only just begun.
A firefighter sprays water as flames from a bushfire consume a residence near Oroville, California. (Image: AP/Noah Berger)
It was a rough weekend in parts of Western Canada and the United States as hundreds of blazes swept through parts of British Columbia, California, Colorado and Arizona. Following an unusually wet spring, the conditions in these areas are now ripe for bushfires, and crews are bracing themselves for what could be a very long and arduous fire season.
The moon rising over flames on a hilltop near Highway 166 east of Santa Maria, California. (Image: AP)
In California, bushfires forced nearly 8000 people from their homes, half of whom live near the grassy foothills of the Sierra Nevada, about 100km north of Sacramento. Bushfires are also sweeping through an area just southeast of Oroville, where earlier this year heavy rains threatened to topple the town's iconic dam, and forced the evacuation of 200,000 residents. "It leaves you feeling like you can't catch a break," said evacuated Oroville resident Sharon Reitan in an interview with the Associated Press.
Firefighters battle a bushfire as it threatens to jump a street near Oroville, California. Evening winds drove the fire through several neighbourhoods levelling homes in its path. (Image: AP/Noah Berger)
The fire near Oroville is one of 14 currently sweeping through California. Dozens of structures have been destroyed so far (with more losses expected), and some 5000 firefighters have been dispatched to tackle the blazes. Fires were also reported in the counties of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Outside of California, bushfires forced the evacuation of hundreds in Breckenridge, Colorado, and evacuation orders were issued for the entire town of Dudleyville near Phoenix, Arizona.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff's vehicle burning on Highway 154 east of Cachuma Lake in the Whittier fire east of Cachuma Lake in Santa Barbara County, California. (Image: AP)
Similar scenes played out in British Columbia, but at a far greater scale. The Western Canadian province is currently battling 220 blazes covering a land base of nearly 24,000 hectares. Over 100 different fires started on Saturday alone, and fire crews are now struggling to contain the largest blazes. The biggest of the fires is located near Ashcroft, just south of Cache Creek. Dozens of buildings have been destroyed, and both communities were forced to evacuate.
On Sunday, the province's premier, Christy Clark, announced a state of emergency as 7000 residents were forced to flee their homes. Experts say the fires are likely to keep spreading, and the number of evacuations is expected to rise. In response, Clark is sending $US100 million ($131 million) to the Canadian Red Cross to help displaced families (personal donations to the Red Cross can be made here).
"We are in many ways at the beginning of the worst part of the fire season," said Clark during a press conference. "We watch the weather, we watch the wind, and we pray for rain — but our prayers aren't always answered on these things and so we need to be there to support people in the meantime."
Bushfires in BC. Flame icon are fires of note, red dots are new fires, and orange dots are small active fires. (Image: Government of British Columbia)
Over a thousand fire crew members have been deployed in British Columbia. They are about to be joined by 300 firefighters from Alberta, Ontario, and other parts of the country. Hundreds of volunteers, many from the forestry industry, are also expected to help. British Columbians are also receiving donations and advice from residents of Fort McMurray, Alberta, which experienced a devastating bushfire a little over a year ago.
Around 550 fires have been reported in the province of British Columbia since April. Half of them started in the past two weeks.
"We've had two to three weeks of sustained hot and dry conditions across most parts of the province," noted Kevin Skrepnek, British Columbia's chief fire information officer, in The Globe and Mail. "Friday was really the tipping point when we had a fairly significant weather system move through — brought wind to most parts of the province." To which he added: "The weather is such a critical factor here and we are certainly not seeing any real reprieve of that situation. We are forecasting weather-wise more of the same — hot and dry conditions for most parts of the province."
Wet and moist conditions from earlier this year led to increased volumes of vegetation, including vast growths of shrubs and long grasses that now have dried into kindling. To compound the problem, dead pine trees litter the province's landscape — victims of a devastating pine beetle infestation. It's only the beginning of the bushfire season in British Columbia, which runs from July to August.
North America on the whole appears to be going through a rather rough fire season. We started to get an inkling about this back in March, and the trend seems to be persisting. While it's tempting to blame climate change for the recent spike in bushfires, the causes of these blazes are complex and multifaceted. As a recent study pointed out, climate change is expanding the range of territory that can go up in smoke — but we're the ones responsible for starting the fires.