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Firefighters hang out welcome banners as evacuees return to Fort Nelson, B.C.

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For more than two weeks, firefighters battled to bring the Parker Lake wildfire threatening the northeast B.C. community of Fort Nelson under control.

With the fire declared as "being held" on Monday, some found time for another task — hanging a banner from a ladder truck to welcome home returning evacuees.

Rob Fraser, mayor of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality which includes Fort Nelson, said he got more hugs on Monday afternoon than he has received in a long time. The evacuation orders covering Fort Nelson and the Fort Nelson First Nation ended at 8 a.m.

"There's a lot of joy and happiness that people are back, relief that they're back," he said from his car parked in Fort Nelson Monday as light rain fell outside.

"We're all really happy, I think, but there's still a little apprehension."

The Parker Lake fire that came within a few kilometres of town on May 10 and led to the evacuation of about 4,700 residents, was classified on Monday as no longer out of control.

A statement from the municipality said the community had been deemed safe to re-enter but there were still active fires in the area. An evacuation alert, requiring people to be ready to leave at short notice, is now in place for Fort Nelson and the First Nation.

The BC Wildfire Service said rain on Sunday and "16 days of sustained wildfire suppression" meant the 123-square-kilometre Parker Lake fire is not expected to grow.

But the blaze, which destroyed four homes and damaged six other properties, hasn't been extinguished and the service said it expects parts of it to continue burning into the fall.

Wildfire crews are also still fighting the Patry Creek fire about 25 kilometres north of Fort Nelson. The massive fire, measuring more than 640 square kilometres, is a holdover fire that was initially ignited by lightning in July 2023.

Fraser said two other wildfires are burning about 65 kilometres east of Fort Nelson. They are among more than 100 fires continuing to burn in B.C., many of them holdovers from last year's record-breaking wildfire season in B.C.

Many of the Fort Nelson evacuees had escaped to Fort St. John, about 380 kilometres to the south.

Fraser called the exodus something "we've never had before in our community."

He said officials plan to hold community meetings over the next month or so to talk to residents about their experiences during the evacuation and discuss how to prepare for future emergencies.

Fraser said the municipality had been working on its wildfire resiliency plan over the last couple years, including clearing some trees to slow the spread of fire, but the plan wasn't complete when the Parker Lake blaze erupted.

He said he hopes this experience will help advance planning.

"To my fellow mayors who have communities in the boreal forest, if you don't have a wildfire resiliency plan, start working on one now," he said.

"And really look at how you can look inside your community and outside your community to protect it from wildfire."

The municipality said several damaged properties are not safe for the general public. An order is in place limiting access to those properties to only the owners, their designates or other permitted personnel.

Fraser said most people who have come back to Fort Nelson have been going straight home, but he expects they will access more help starting on Tuesday. The municipality said residents arriving home would have access to free cleaning kits provided by the Red Cross.

Fraser said aid being offered at a "resiliency centre" in town also includes help for people looking to get back to work and mental-health support, as well as supports being brought in by the First Nation.

A statement from Northern Health said emergency services at Fort Nelson General Hospital are resuming.

"The hospital’s emergency department is reopening Monday morning with limited laboratory and medical imaging supports. Other departments will resume services in the weeks ahead," the statement said.

The health authority said people requiring in-patient care will continue to be transferred to other facilities in the northeast.

Highway 97, also known as the Alaska Highway, was reopened with pilot cars operating between the 301- and 309-mile marks, the wildfire service said. Nearby Highway 77 was also reopened, but with speed restrictions.

At the Doig River First Nation, a wildfire evacuation alert was rescinded. The First Nation posted online that the "threat to life and safety has passed."

The BC Wildfire Service online dashboard listed 112 active wildfires in the province late Monday, 101 of which are in the northeast.

In a video update posted online Sunday, Hugh Murdoch, an incident commander working out of Fort Nelson, said there is still a "tremendous amount of fire" in the region, with about 2,500 square kilometres burning in the Northern Peace complex.

Murdoch said 130 firefighters are working on the Parker Lake and Patry Creek fires, along with 11 pieces of heavy equipment and 19 helicopters.

"The summer is going to be a long one, I think. It's had an early start again and there seems to be just so much fire on the landscape so early," he said.

"And it's not just lightning that's going to give us our starts, but these holdover fires from the previous year (are) another source that's giving us a lot of challenges."  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2024 

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