Sooke fire chief Steven Sorensen was on his way to a meeting at the Otter Point fire hall when he saw columns of smoke billowing out near the Little Vienna Bakery on West Coast Road – a hedge fire was spreading quickly towards the building.
Given a long wave of dry heat moving through B.C., it was one of many fire calls on Thursday. Last Week Sooke firefighters answered 10 calls, four were grass fires.
The majority of calls have been bark mulch and grass fires caused by flicked cigarette butts, Sorensen said, adding that since the dry spell began more than two weeks ago, the fire department averages around three fire calls a day.
“It doesn’t take much in this weather. We got a couple of beach fires that got away, and our fire numbers are up significantly,” he said. “We’re about six weeks from where we typically are for the dryness. This is like mid-August, so we wonder what mid-August will be.”
Sorensen hopes the campfire ban that took effect on Friday will come as a warning of how dry and volatile the landscape has become.
“If we can prevent even one fire by not having camp fires, that helps,” he said. “I feel bad for people who like to camp, but burning half the town down is not a good option either.”
The ban prohibits open fires such as backyard burning or land-clearing bun piles, burning barrels, burning cages, fireworks, firecrackers and sky lanterns.
The prohibition does not include cooking stoves that use gas, propane, or briquettes, or portable campfire apparatus that use briquettes, liquid or gaseous fuel, as long as the flame is less than 15 centimetres, according to a Coastal Fire Centre press release.
But the reason for the ban is more than clear: a fire can use wind and dry bush to extend itself, Sorensen said.
“It’s usually the sparks that start the fires. The other concern is where the fire is left when no one is watching it, and it gets into roots, or the wind comes up and blows it along,” Sorensen said.
In the case of Little Vienna Bakery, Sorensen said the response timing was luckily perfect, both in terms of available volunteers and the lack of wind.
“As soon as I saw the building was on fire, I called Otter Point as well because it’s better to have too much than not enough,” he said. “Fire burnt most of the hedge up, and the probability a cigarette as the catalyst is pretty high.”
The radiant heat from the cedar hedge was enough to get the flames to the building’s exposed wood on the roof, which allowed it to spread from there. Fortunately, the structure damage was mostly cosmetic and the fire did not penetrate the building.
But with the dry weather continuing, every city and municipality in B.C., big and small, remains on high alert.
“With the exceedingly dry conditions, fires can start with something as simple as a cigarette butt being carelessly discarded to someone deliberately setting it with a match or a lighter,” said Doug Carey, deputy chief with the Victoria Fire Department.
Besides risking an actual fire, consequences for lighting up during the ban can be costly. Anyone found in contravention of an open burning prohibition may be issued a ticket for $345, required to pay an administrative penalty of $10,000 or, if convicted in court, fined up to $100,000 and sentenced to one year in jail.
And yes, that includes flicking lit cigarette butts; if someone is found to of caused or contributed to a wildfire, the person responsible may be ordered to pay all firefighting and associated costs.