July 20, 2009 / 4:58 PM / 8 years ago

Canadian wildfires bode ill if summer stays dry

3 Min Read

<p>A forest fire burns on the edge of Kelowna, British Columbia, northeast of Vancouver, July 19, 2009.Andy Clark</p>

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Calm overnight winds aided Canadian firefighters on Monday as they struggled to control forest fires that have displaced thousands in a wine-producing and resort region of central British Columbia.

The three fires were likely sparked by human activity, and an official said they are a troubling sign of how the rest of wildfire season will go in the region, which is suffering some of the driest conditions in Canada this summer.

Calmer overnight winds meant there was no significant growth in two fires that have forced evacuations near the city of Kelowna, according to the British Columbia Forest Service. A third fire was not burning near populated areas.

"Crews are hoping to aggressively attack the fires," Fire Information Officer Elise Riedlinger said.

About 17,000 people in the District of West Kelowna, along the shores of Okanagan Lake, have been evacuated or told to be ready to evacuate at a moment's notice because of the fires, which began on Saturday.

Kelowna, in the Okanagan Valley of south-central British Columbia, is about a 250-mile drive east of Vancouver. It is the heart of Canada's West Coast wine industry and a popular vacation spot.

Accidentally Sparked?

All three fires were believed caused by human activity. Officials said they may have been sparked by something such as carelessly discarded cigarette.

"We have no reason to believe (they were) deliberately set," said Rob Moore, an incident commander with the provincial forestry service.

Officials said the region did not get rain in June as it normally does, and that the speed at which the wind-fanned flames spread on Saturday reflects how dry forest conditions are.

The fires have brought back painful memories of 2003, when fires raged near several communities in British Columbia, including Kelowna, which saw more than 200 homes destroyed in a single dramatic night of flames.

District of West Kelowna Mayor Doug Findlater told a radio interviewer on Monday that he is worried because the worst of the 2003 fires happened later in the summer than these fires. No significant rain is expected in the area for several days.

British Columbia is a major source of Canada's lumber exports, but none of the province's fires so far this year have posed a major threat to the timber industry.

Given the weak lumber market, the fires have less of an impact than would something that destroys houses in the United States, such as hurricane, said Paul Quinn, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets.

"Lumber supply is not the question. Demand is the question," he said.

The Kelowna fires have apparently caused little property damage so far. Three homes burned, but a sawmill was saved by workers who rushed to the Gorman Brothers Ltd mill and braved falling cinders to keep the flames at bay.

Reporting Allan Dowd, editing by Peter Galloway

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