Tinder-dry forest prompts Okanagan campfire ban

Wildfire Management Branch says nearly three-quarters of fires this year have been human-caused

A campfire ban over much of the Southern Interior might put a damper on outdoor enthusiasts’ weekend plans, but it could help keep Willowbrook’s fire chief from missing another dinner engagement.

Brad Fossett was on his way to a friend’s farewell party on Sunday when his department was dispatched to a wildfire near the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory about five kilometres southwest of Okanagan Falls.

“I got my page, picked up my radio, told my wife ‘I’ll see you later,’ and headed out the door and was gone for two days,” Fossett said.

The chief and 18 members of the volunteer fire department responded to the wildfire and were soon joined by counterparts from Kaleden and the B.C. Wildfire Management Branch.

“It was an extremely well-coordinated effort between the two fire departments and forestry. They had some of the best in the business doing the job there and I was amazed at how well it went,” he said.

Willowbrook’s volunteers established water lines at the north and south ends of the fire, then focused efforts on protecting the Sweetwater Ranch and a dozen properties that were placed on evacuation alert.

The fire burned to within about 120 metres of one of those homes.

“It was close enough to feel the heat,” Fossett said.

Although the blaze eventually charred an area of 70 hectares, it was contained by Monday afternoon. Forty firefighters remained on the ground throughout the week to mop up.

Officials believe the fire was caused by human activity, but don’t know much more than that, according to Melissa Welsh, an information officer for the Wildfire Management Branch.

“It’s still very much in the early stage of the investigation,” she said.

So far this fire season, 72 per cent of blazes the branch has attended have been attributed to human activity, mostly  campfires left unattended or that got out of control, Welsh said. That statistic, plus recent hot, dry weather prompted the campfire ban over a large swath of B.C.

“Human-caused wildfires really just divert our resources away from naturally occurring wildfires and we want to put our attention on those ones,” she noted.

The fire ban prohibits open burning on Crown land throughout the Kamloops Fire Centre, which covers the Thompson, Okanagan, Similkameen and Shuswap regions. Local governments in the South Okanagan have also ordered bans within their jurisdictions.

Cooking stoves are excluded from the orders, similar versions of which are in place for the Coastal and Cariboo fire centres.

As of Thursday, the fire danger rating around Penticton was pegged at high.

Environment Canada is forecasting rain and thunderstorms throughout the region this weekend, but Welsh doesn’t think it will be enough to push down the fire danger rating. She’s also concerned about the potential for lightning-caused fires.