WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. – Wildfire conditions in British Columbia are expected to worsen over the weekend as officials predict winds to pick up, fanning dozens of flare-ups that have forced more than 16,000 people from their homes.
Kevin Skrepnek, chief information officer with the BC Wildfire Service, said Thursday the slight reprieve in weather over the past few days will end with the arrival of a cold front that is expected to bring “significant winds” across most of the southern part of the province.
“The big weather concern at the moment is the outlook for this weekend,” he said. “Winds have been a huge factor in terms of fire activity so far over the last few weeks, so that’s definitely a cause for concern.”
About 680 blazes have consumed 1,110-square-kilometres of grass, bush, forest and in some cases neighbourhoods since the fire season began in April, Skrepnek said. There were more than 180 wildfires burning across the province on Thursday afternoon, concentrated in the central and southern Interior.
Robert Turner of Emergency Management B.C. said about 9,430 of the estimated 16,250 evacuees had registered with the Canadian Red Cross. About 1,800 families were expected to have received a $600 assistance package from the province by the end of Thursday, he added.
B.C. declared a state of emergency late last week as hundreds of wildfires broke out over the span of a couple days.
More than 3,100 people have been enlisted to fight the flames, including firefighters and support staff, nearly 400 of whom were brought from outside B.C. to help.
B.C. Premier-designate John Horgan had an aerial view of the damage during a fly-over near Williams Lake on Thursday.
He said there is no question it will take a while to clean up the devastation.
“There’s still huge, huge pockets of smoke. A couple of trees went up like Roman candles while we were there,” he said.
Horgan said any evacuees who aren’t getting the help they need should be vocal so that resources can be directed their way.
Unit crews began lighting controlled fires west of Williams Lake on Thursday, where nearly 11,000 people have been on standby since Monday to evacuate at a moment’s notice.
Mayor Walt Cobb said he feels heartened after forecasted stronger winds failed to materialize earlier this week, giving ground crews time to prepare for the worst.
“Every day that we have a reprieve, the firefighters are out there putting back-burns in, so everyday that we have without another storm is going to make it that much better for us because they’ll have some protection in place,” he said in a telephone interview.
At least 60 per cent of residents had already left town, he estimated, largely because of the smoke from the fires.
“Some are afraid. Some have young kids and they don’t want to take the chance.”
Hundreds of fire-suppression crews were standing by within an hour of the community and military personnel were ready to assist with mass evacuations, if necessary, he said.
Cobb said he believes everyone left in Williams Lake would follow evacuations orders, adding that anyone who stays behind risks the lives of firefighters who may be called in to save people from burning homes.
“What I’m suggesting to people is: If you’re going to stay and you’re not going to evacuate when you’re told to evacuate, make sure you’ve got your dental records so if you burn up in the fire we can identify you,” he said.
Geoff Paynton, director of communications for the Williams Lake emergency operations centre, said there was enough food and gasoline in the city as trucks were getting through. The issue was staff shortages, he said.
The Ministry of Forests Lands and Natural Resource Operations announced on Thursday that the Cariboo fire centre, 103,000 square kilometres in size, has been closed to backcountry campers and trail users as a safety precaution, allowing crews to focus on firefighting.
John Hawkings, director of recreation sites and trails, said the closure includes 165 campsites and 65 trails in the Cariboo fire centre, in addition to 18 sites outside the centre that were affected by forest fires.
Dozens of provincial parks, ecological reserves and protected areas have also been closed in the fire centre because of the wildfire hazard.
(CHNL,The Canadian Press)
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the Cariboo fire centre was closed to all backcountry users.