37,000 people displaced as resources stretched to fight B.C. wildfires
Published Sunday, July 16, 2017 10:52AM PDT
Last Updated Monday, July 17, 2017 10:37AM PDT
Strong winds have strengthened many of the wildfires burning across B.C.’s Interior, forcing thousands more people out of their homes and posing serious challenges for officials trying to meet the needs of as many as 37,000 evacuees.
"Officials in Kamloops are scrambling to pull together any and all resources we can," Transportation Minister Todd Stone told reporters during a conference call Sunday. "We are going to get through this. We are resilient."
Resources at the Kamloops evacuation centre are “approaching the point of being a bit stretched," Stone added, after the centre took in thousands more evacuees from Williams Lake on Saturday night.
Williams Lake and the surrounding area saw the biggest increase in fire activity overnight. An evacuation alert that had been in place for the region turned into an order on Saturday when the flames jumped Highway 97, compromising the evacuation route to the north of the city.
To the thousands of evacuees in BC - we're with you & doing all we can to help. A huge thank you to everyone working to keep people safe.— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) July 17, 2017
“We don’t want to be in a situation where we have no access for the number of people who have to be moved out of here,” said Cariboo Regional District chairman Al Richmond.
About 11,000 people remaining in the community were forced out of their homes. About half the residents of Williams Lake had already left.
Williams Lake itself has not been damaged, but B.C.'s chief wildfire information officer, Skrepnek, said the White Lake fire crossed the Fraser River on Saturday night and is now between seven and 10 kilometres away from the city.
Emergency Management BC instructed drivers to head south from Williams Lake on Highway 97.
In the Okanagan, emergency officials said a wildfire that was first reported on Saturday afternoon has destroyed eight homes and one other structure in Lake Country.
“We’re still doing a lot of structural protection. A lot of homes are still threatened,” said Lake Country Fire Chief Steve Windsor. “(There is) very steep topography here and the fire is actually burning below a number of them.”
In a statement issued Sunday afternoon, officials said 331 properties have been evacuated in the area bordered by Okanagan Centre Road West, Nighthawk Road and Tyndall Road.
The residents of 657 other properties are on evacuation alert and should be ready to evacuate on short notice.
The 55-hectare blaze is about 50 per cent contained thanks to the quick work of firefighters, but residents are not being allowed to return home yet.
Windsor said the RCMP and fire officials are still investigating how the fire started.
On Saturday, evacuation orders were also issued for the remote Clisbako area in the Cariboo region. Later in the day, those in the area bordered by the Fraser River, the Quesnel River, Anthone Lake, MacIntosh Lake and the existing order at 150 Mile House, were also ordered to leave.
Skrepnek said crews are battling a total of 162 fires, which prompted a province-wise state of emergency last week. Fifteen of those fires pose an immediate threat to communities, the largest of those is burning near Ashcroft and now covers 423 square kilometres.
Despite cooling temperatures, crews expect strong winds to continue to hamper firefighting efforts in the coming days. Environment Canada is forecasting wind speeds up of to 40 km/h on Sunday.
Reception centres have also started popping up in Metro Vancouver, including the Cloverdale Arena in Surrey. Chilliwack Secondary School is also offering more than 100 evacuees a place to stay.
The last time B.C. declared a state of emergency was in 2003 when more than 50,000 people had to be evacuated from Kelowna and the surround area.
While the current number of evacuees has not exceeded that record, officials say this year’s wildfires are far more spread out across the province.
"The difference this time is the geographic scope and that we're seeing multiple communities throughout (the province), and that it's earlier in the fire season so the possible duration of this is different," said Robert Turner of Emergency Management BC.
Approximately 2,900 personnel are working under the BC Wildfire Service, including 400 people from other provinces and 1,000 contract firefighters.
According to Robert Turner or Emergency Management BC, 6,700 households have registered with the Canadian Red Cross. About 5,400 of those families have now received a $600 payment as part of the provincial government’s $100-million wildfire relief fund announced last week.
Fire suppression alone has cost the province $81 million so far, Skrepnek said.
More than 640 wildfires have broken out since April 1, totaling about 1,310 square kilometres of land.
With files from The Canadian Press
The 150, Wildwood and Hawkes fires merged on Sat and are now all called Wildwood. It's 13,000ha. The White Lake fire is 8,000ha #BCWildfires— BreannaKarstensSmith (@BreannaCTV) July 17, 2017