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Lightning storm sparks fires in region

More than 100 wildfires reported in Coastal Fire Centre following Saturday evening lightning storm

Saturday night’s lightning storm started more than 100 fires in the Coastal Fire Centre, including three fires in the Cypress Bowl area in the Lower Mainland. Most of the wildfires were spotted in the Fraser Valley and to the north of Pemberton. New fires are still being discovered that have been smouldering underground and are slowly coming to the surface, according to Sue Handel, the Fire Information Officer for the Coastal Fire Centre.

Firefighting efforts have met with mixed results. The Cypress Bowl fires are out after a combined ground and air effort.

The 12 wildfires to the north of Pemberton, most of which are burning in steep terrain and high elevations, are more difficult. A crew of 12 firefighters, four helicopters and five air tankers have been fighting them all week with some success – none of them have grown significantly.

In the Fraser Valley, there are 15 helicopters and 205 firefighters involved in putting out more than 85 wildfires, some of which are quite large in size. The Tsileuh Creek fire, which is near the Hells Gate recreation area, is already about 275 hectares in size, but appeared to have been contained at press time. The Kookipi Creek fire is about 60 hectares in size, and will be fought mostly by air because of the steep terrain.

To date, 1,122 hectares in the Coastal Fire Centre have been burned in 299 fires. An estimated 50 per cent of those fires were caused by lightning, and the rest were human-caused.

Around the province an estimated 220 fires were burning at the beginning of the week, compared to 855 at the same time last year. Monday will also be the anniversary of the Okanagan Mountain fire that destroyed 238 homes in the Kelowna area.

According to fire chief Bruce Hall of Whistler Fire Rescue Services, things have been relatively quiet in the Whistler area.

"We did receive reports of lightning strikes around Whistler from the Coastal Fire Service, and we checked them out, but didn’t find anything. One of the strikes was in a remote location, so we couldn’t check that out, but I think we’d know by now if it was a problem," said Hall.

Fire crews were called out to battle two minor brush fires this week, both believed to have been human-caused, although the exact cause has not been determined.

"We’ve been lucky, but as anyone who has been in the bush will testify it’s very, very dry out there," said Hall. "Once again we’re urging everyone to be extremely careful for the next little while, because we’re going to need quite a bit of rain before things get better."

The fire hazard is currently listed at extreme for Whistler, resulting in a fire ban and limited construction times in interface zones. Still, there are no plans to close the backcountry, which happened in August of 2003.

If the provincial government does decide to limit access to the backcountry, they will consider banning travel in specific areas or for specific activities, instead of the blanket ban that hurt tourism and recreation business last summer. They also hope to be able to give 48 hours notice before any closures.

The largest fire in the region is the Whitecap Creek fire, which is in the Seton Portage area near Lillooet and Anderson Lake. At press time it was 1,300 hectares in size and still growing. Residents of Seton Portage were put on evacuation alert on Monday. The fire was just four kilometres from town as of Wednesday.

Smoke from that blaze can be seen in Pemberton, and the haze was visible in Whistler last weekend.

The mountainous terrain has made it all but impossible for firefighters there to battle the blaze on the ground from safe areas. Several planes and helicopters are involved in the effort.

More lightning was in the forecast later this week, and rain was in the forecast for this weekend.