Canadian town bracing for its last stand against out-of-control 13,000-acre wildfire

May 13, 2024
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A Canadian town is bracing for what its mayor says could be its “last stand” against a raging out-of-control wildfire that has already burned more than 13,000 acres. 

As of Monday, the Parker Lake Wildfire in British Columbia had grown to 5,280 hectares, or 13,047 acres, the BC Wildfire Service said. It’s currently considered “out-of-control.” 

Cliff Chapman, director of provincial operations at the service, said during a briefing on Sunday that wildfire activity in the area around Fort Nelson “increased dramatically.” 

“The Parker Lake Wildfire started west of Fort Nelson on May 10 and exhibited fast growth and high fire behavior,” he said, saying responders were sent to the area immediately to help prepare the region and assist in evacuations. “…Extreme winds and dry conditions drove this fire towards the community of Fort Nelson.”

He said the fire is “aggressive” and that highways in the area are closed. 

“If you are still in Fort Nelson or anywhere in the evacuation order of the Parker Lake Wildfire, I encourage you to leave,” Chapman said. “The fuels are as dry as we have ever seen. The wind is going to be sustained and it is going to push the fire towards the community. Escape routes may be compromised and visibility will be poor as the wildfire continues to grow.” 

Fire Behavior Specialist Ben Boghean said the next few days will be “challenging” as winds on Monday are expected to reach roughly 12.5 miles per hour. 

“Our current fire behavior projections show the community of Fort Nelson may be impacted during the morning of May 13,” he said, adding that fire behavior is expected to be somewhat reduced on Tuesday, but the threat of the fire remains until rain hits the area. 

The Parker Lake Fire comes as the region continues to face several years of drought, Boghean said, with the past winter seeing below-normal levels of snowpack only adding to the issue. That combination has made fires in the area’s forests more likely and easier to spread. Within four hours of the fire being detected on May 10, Boghean said it grew nearly five miles amid strong winds. 

“This rapid growth highlighted how dry and volatile forest fuels are up here and just how much potential there is for extreme fire behavior in the area when sustained winds reach 15 kilometers an hour (about 9 miles an hour),” he said.

Rob Fraser, mayor of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality based in Fort Nelson, told The Canadian Press that officials and responders are bracing for what could be the town’s “last stand” against the incoming fire. 

“That’s the exact worst-case scenario,” he said. “The first is two to three kilometers away [less than 2 miles], and if we get winds from the west anything like we did on Friday…it’s going to be extremely difficult to keep it from moving into the community.” 

As of Sunday, Fraser said there were still several dozen households, up to 150 people, in and around the town that had not evacuated. If they stay, he warned, they could see significantly reduced or even totally paused availability of electricity or water as those supplies go to firefighters. 

“They’ll be at their homes thinking that they’re going to be able to use their own sprinklers, electric pumps and that sort of thing to help themselves,” he warned, “and they’ll find that the resources that they need are gone.” 

The Parker Lake Wildifre is one of more than 130 in the Canadian province, eight of which have started in just the past 24 hours, according to the B.C. Wildfire Service. While 10% of those fires are considered to be out of control, Parker Lake remains the only fire “of note,” according to the agency, meaning that it’s highly visible or poses a potential threat to public safety.

Canadian officials previously warned that this year could see another catastrophic season after last year’s destructive blazes. So far, the country has reported 823 wildfires in 2024, a number far above the 10-year average of 717, although acres burned remain lower than that average. Currently, there are six uncontrolled fires throughout Canada. 

“The number of fires is well above average for this time of year, and well below the 10-year average for area burned for this time of year,” the National Wildland Fire Situation Report said as of May 8. 

Those in the U.S. have become all too familiar with raging Canadian wildfires after last summer’s blazes sent dense smoke across several states. On Monday, at least two states reported air quality impacts. Minnesota was under an air quality alert on Monday, with conditions deemed unhealthy for sensitive groups in some areas, although those conditions were expected to improve throughout the day.

Wisconsin is also expected to see decreased air quality on Monday, according to the local National Weather Service station. Those conditions are also expected to improve throughout the day.

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