More than 180 wildfires burning across B.C.: officials
Published Friday, July 7, 2017 10:14AM PDT Last Updated Sunday, July 9, 2017 1:38PM PDT
A province-wide state of emergency has been declared in British Columbia as wildfires burn out of control across much of the Interior and Cariboo region, forcing thousands of people out of their homes.
The province estimates that 3,000 households have been evacuated across the Cariboo region as well as in Princeton and Ashcroft. They're being sent to centres in Kamloops, Williams Lake and Prince George.
"The situation has escalated. It is a serious situation and the province is bringing to bear all the resources we have available," John Rustand, the B.C. minister of forests, said at a press conference Saturday afternoon.
Chief fire information officer with the BC Wildfire Serivce Kevin Skrepnek said 182 fires were burning across the province as of Saturday morning. More than 140 of those broke out on Friday.
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“Given the current wildfire situation and the expected increase in wildfire activity, the province is taking this extraordinary measure of declaring a provincial state of emergency,” the government said in a statement issued Friday night. “This is an urgent situation and public safety is our top priority.”
According to the statement, the state of emergency gives agencies such as Emergency Management BC, the fire commissioner, the Ministry of Forests and Natural Resources and the RCMP the authority to take “every action necessary” to fight these wildfires.
More than 1,000 fire personnel are attacking the fires directly, according to Rustad. That number climbs to 1,600 when including logistical personnel.
B.C. will be bringing in 260 firefighters from other provinces to help fight the fire. Rustad said they will arrive early next week, likely on Monday or Tuesday.
The province has also been in contact with Ottawa about bringing in military help.
"They have responded positively and said whatever we need, they’re ready," Rustad said.
Ashcroft, Cache Creek evacuated
The community of Ashcroft, located about 120 kilometres west of Kamloops, was evacuated after a blaze that broke out onThursday spread to 40 square kilometres by Saturday.
Officials have cleared out an unconfirmed number of homes as well as the entire neighbouring community of Cache Creek.
“I was in the house with my daughter and just noticed a lot of smoke and the wind changed really fast. The sky lit up orange and I looked outside and the mountain’s on fire,” Cache Creek evacuee Angela Taylor told CTV News.
Cache Creek Mayor and head of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District John Ranta said the fire has destroyed 30 mobile homes, two hangars at the local airport and at least five houses.
BC Wildfire Service spokesperson Justine Hunse told The Canadian Press part of the fire is in the Ashcroft Indian Reserve, but could not confirm the extent of the damage to the community.
"We have performed a tactical evacuation in the area, which means that firefighters have gone door-to-door to evacuate folks at very short notice," she said.
Witnesses said several buildings have already been burned and others are threatened. The flames and smoke have also made driving through parts of the region unsafe, prompting closures on parts of Highway 1 and 97C, according to Drive BC.
Evacuation centres for those fleeing the fire have been set up in Kamloops. Evacuees are being offered food, blankets, clothing and crates for animals.
It will be at least several days before they can go home, said emergency support worker Gordon Davis.
“We just don’t have that capacity other than group lodging with cots,” he said. “It’s not ideal, but at least hopefully they’ll be safe and dry—hopefully cool as well.”
But those from affected communities say they’re worried about what they’ll find when they return home.
“We have a business in Cache Creek. We have a house in Cache Creek,” said Ian Campbell, who fled the fire with his wife, Anie. “We don’t know. It’s scary.”
A Facebook group set up offering room in people’s homes for those in need of shelter.
Rustad says he feels for people who have to pack up not knowing when they'll be able to come back.
"I can tell you from personal experience, when you're under evacuation alert it is nerve wracking. It's upsetting. For anybody that has an evacuation order, it's even worse."
Buildings destroyed near Williams Lake
Officials with the Cariboo Regional District say a wildfire near Williams Lake has destroyed several buildings, including two hangars at the local airport.
A 1,500-hectare fire has forced the evacuation of 2,100 properties in other communities along Highway 97 south of Williams Lake, including 105 Mile House, 108 Mile Ranch and the west shore of Lac La Hache. Roughly 3,600 people have been affected by those evacuations.
“I looked up the hill and I saw the flames going up one side of the hillside and it went from the bottom to the top in a matter of a minute—just racing up the hill,” said one evacuee.
As of Saturday afternoon, the government doesn't know how many homes or properties have been damaged by the fire because the thick smoke is making it impossible to get an accurate estimate.
"Our primary goal through all of this is to make sure that we protect life," Rustad said. "Our secondary goal is to protect key infrastructure such as roads and hydro lines and other assets including people's homes."
RCMP officers have been sent from across the province to assist with the evacuation and secure the communities affected by the fires.
Mike Morris, the B.C. minister of public safety, asked that people and listen to emergency personnel and remain calm. As Saturday afternoon, the government had received no reports of people resisting evacuation orders.
Cariboo Regional District chairman Al Richmond said no properties in the area are currently at risk.
The wildfire was less than 0.01 square kilometres when it was discovered Thursday, but winds have fanned it across more than 15 square kilometres since.
Aggressive flames have torn through trees, many of which were already tinder dry before the blaze broke out due to pine beetle infestation.
"The forest fire is absolutely huge," said Dave Scott, one of the evacuees. "It is cresting the top of one of the mountains and people are around me getting cattle out of the area, horses out of the area. It is very difficult indeed."
Scott said the normally quiet highways heading out of the evacuation zone were full of cars and trucks Friday as people scrambled to get to safety in 100 Mile House, where two emergency centres have been set up.
"Usually you're lucky to see five or six cars in the morning," he said. "The highway is packed, moving at about 45 kilometres an hour."
There are only two exits along in the area of 108 Mile Ranch where 2,500 people have been ordered to leave, Skrepnek added.
The Canim Lake Resort east of town also opened its gates to offer full-service campsites to people who were forced from their homes free of charge.
Fire near Princeton shuts down highway
A wildfire has flared up on both sides of Highway 5 near Princeton, B.C., sending large amounts of smoke into the air. The blaze has closed the highway at its junction with Highway 3.
Officials estimate that fire has burned more than 1,500 hectares and has forced the evacuation of 54 homes.
More than 1,000 firefighters have been deployed across the province, Skrepnek said.
The last time the province declared a state of emergency was in 2003, also due to wildfires.
Traffic restricted between Quesnel and Williams lake
Traffic is restricted to northbound only between Quesnel and Williams Lake, with the exception of fuel, supplies and emergency vehicles.
Hot, dry weather expected to continue
Rustad stressed that the hot weather in the coming days means the situation could continue to grow.
"The weather situation is not favourable under current conditions," he said.
Environment Canada is forecasting several more days of record high temperatures and dry conditions, warning that the wildfire danger rating will remain high is much of southern B.C.
The agency has issued special weather statements for much of the Interior and some of northeastern B.C., with daily highs expected to reach the low to mid 30s over the weekend.
Slightly cooler temperatures are expected early next week.
Several areas affect by the wildfires are also under air quality advisories due to heavy smoke.
Officials are urging residents to avoid strenuous outdoor activities and contact a health care provider if you experience any difficulty breathing, chest pain or a sudden onset cough.
The provincial government has also extended a campfire ban across most of B.C.
Anyone who sees a wildfire is urged to report it by calling 1-800-663-5555 or *5555.
With files from CTV Vancouver's Sheila Scott, Breanna Karstens-Smith and The Canadian Press