Windstorm expected to exacerbate fires near Fort Nelson, B.C.

Two fires from 2023 have reignited in northeastern B.C., leading to an evacuation alert and the deployment of crews to the area.

The Nogah Creek and Patry Creek wildfires, both near Fort Nelson, about 550 kilometres north of Prince George, went underground for the winter. They became what’s known as sleeper fires — or more menacingly, zombie fires.

This spring, they both reignited after the snow melted and the ground thawed, explained Pedro Roldan-Delgado, an information officer for the B.C. Wildfire Service (BCWS).

Wind this weekend may exceed 70 kilometres per hour, and could shift direction rapidly, according to the BCWS. This creates the potential for extreme fire behaviour at both sites.

A map showing Fort Nelson, B.C.
The fire danger rating around Fort Nelson, in B.C.’s far northeast, is rated as “extreme” (red) or “high” (orange). (B.C. Wildfire Service)

Rob Fraser, mayor of Northern Rockies Regional Municipality said residents are apprehensive of the “big dry storm coming through” this weekend.

“These fires are hold-over fires and if the winds pick up in that dry country, we’re looking at a big major spread outside the current fire control area,” Fraser said.

Visible smoke

The Nogah Creek fire is about 60 kilometres east of Fort Nelson, while the Patry Creek fire is about 40 kilometres from the junction of the Alaska Highway and Highway 77. 

As of May 10, there are 119 active wildfires in the province, but only three of those fires are categorized as out of control — including the Patry Creek and Nogah Creek fires.

The BCWS warns that visible smoke is expected in the surrounding areas.

At the advice of the BCWS, the municipality issued an evacuation alert on May 9, warning residents who live near both fires that they need to be ready to evacuate on short notice. Fraser said the areas are mostly uninhabited, but include some oil and gas camps that may house around 30 people each.

“An Incident Management Team will be assuming command in the zone … and additional resources are on standby through the weekend,” said a statement from the BCWS.

Drought conditions

The evacuation alert comes as the province reports a snowpack of 66 per cent of normal — a sharp decrease from last year’s 91 per cent. According to the province, it’s creating a significantly elevated drought hazard.

The BCWS has reported that the conditions around both fire areas resemble those of late summer, even though it’s only May.

Fraser said that some locals are critical of the BCWS for not addressing the sleeper fires earlier, including during the winter when the Nogah Creek fire was accessible by road.

“But they didn’t hire their crews until late in March, and so they just didn’t get out there in time to get some of these fires out,” he said.

On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke at a news conference about the 2024 wildfire situation in B.C., and linked the severity of forest fire risks to climate change.

“It is likely to be a very bad forest fire season,” he said, noting that responders are drawing on lessons learned from previous years as they plan for this year’s response.

B.C.’s 2023 wildfire season is widely regarded as the worst on record after about 400 structures were destroyed. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, and wildfire damage cost insurance companies more than $720 million.


Posted in CBC