Video of prescribed burn in British Columbia misrepresented online

  • This article is more than one year old.
  • Published on June 12, 2023 at 19:20
  • 3 min read
  • By Gwen ROLEY, AFP Canada
Social media users sharing a video of a helicopter dropping flames on a forest repeat claims that Canada's wildfire emergency is the result of blazes set on purpose. This is false; officials confirmed the video shows a heli-torch executing a controlled burn, which is an established suppression tactic where a fire's fuel is set alight as a containment measure before it reaches populated areas.

"It was a set up," says the text over a June 7, 2023 Instagram reel with more than 3 million views. The video shows a helicopter appearing to light a forest on fire and insinuates that many of Canada's hundreds of currently out-of-control wildfires were intentionally started.

Other posts claiming the fires were maliciously ignited spread the same clip, with one video on Facebook receiving some 743,000 views in 24 hours.

The video also jumped to Twitter and TikTok where one of the text overlays from a June 8 video asked: "Why are they burning down Canada?"

Screenshot of an Instagram reel, taken June 9, 2023

Canada saw unprecedented wildfires start in May in several provinces and territories, leading to the evacuations of tens of thousands of people. Smoke from the infernos reduced air quality across North America.

The helicopter video posts mirror other conspiratorial claims that the fires were set intentionally -- ignoring the impact of climate change, which Natural Resources Canada (NRC) told reporters is creating conditions for longer and more intense fire seasons.

But the video is an example of controlled or prescribed burns, a frequently used wildfire suppression tactic.

In the bottom right corner of the video a watermark for the Government of British Columbia is visible.

Representatives from British Columbia (BC) Wildfire Services said the video shows a planned ignition of a wildfire in the northeast of the province near Donnie Creek (archived here).

"It's our largest wildfire this season. It might even be growing into becoming one of the largest wildfires that we have seen in BC," said Erika Berg, a spokeswoman with BC Wildfire.

Berg said the clips were filmed on June 1 and June 2, and the fire protection agency uses these types of videos to educate the public about how they fight wildfires.

"There can be a misconception that people think, 'Well, just put out the fires, put it out.' But when you get to fires of this size, there's really no way that you can fully extinguish it. It kind of just needs to burn itself out," Berg said.

She said that planned ignition is used to remove brush ahead of a wildfire so when it reaches that area there is less fuel for it feed on, limiting the spread of flames as they fan out and making the work of fire crews more manageable.

The distinct, yellow, blue and red design on the helicopter is visible in another video (archived here) posted on Twitter by BC Wildfire Service.

Screenshot of a TikTok video, taken June 9, 2023
Screenshot of a tweet from the BC Wildfire Service, taken June 12, 2023



Repeated heli-torch claims

Wildfire seasons often trigger misinformation, particularly recirculated videos of prescribed burns.

In previous years, AFP debunked claims in California, China and Europe about heli-torches being used to commit arson.

Berg said that BC Wildfire resorted to prescribed burns at Donnie Creek after water bombing proved ineffective at containing the large fire.

She said wildfires are occurring more often and are becoming more difficult to extinguish due to climate change.

"This is just a very good example of what climate change is doing," Berg said. "It's June, it's early for us, these are the types of wildfires which we typically would maybe see more in August and July."

AFP has also debunked arson claims in Alberta, where officials said that while some of the fires may have human causes, there is no official evidence of coordinated arson.

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