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Next 48 hours will be 'extremely challenging' for B.C. wildfire crews near Fort Nelson: officials

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A wildfire burning dangerously close to Fort Nelson, B.C., has grown to more than 50 square kilometres, and officials are warning that the blaze's behaviour is expected to become more volatile over the next 48 hours.

Emergency Preparedness Minister Bowinn Ma provided an update on the Parker Lake wildfire Monday morning saying the forecast calls for "extremely challenging conditions" for crews across the northeastern part of the province.

"We know that drought conditions have persisted," she said. "This has made the hills in the area extremely dry with no precipitation, no major precipitation in the forecast ahead. And with winds that can pick up at any time – let's just say we are extremely concerned."

Cliff Chapman, with the B.C. Wildfire Service, said westerly winds with gusts up to 30 km/h are expected to begin Monday afternoon.

"Those winds are going to be here for the next 48 hours. And it's really just about when they show up and how long they're going to last," he said.

Fort Nelson and the Fort Nelson First Nation were ordered to evacuate on Friday, forcing around 4,700 people to flee. The fire is burning roughly 2.5 kilometres outside of the community.

"It is not unprecedented but it is quite rare," Ma said, when asked if this is the earliest the province has seen a wildfire-related evacuation order.

"I will say however, that it is extremely uncommon for us to have so many people on an evacuation order at this time."

Ma also said everyone who has left has been connected to the accommodation and services that they need.

However, while the "vast majority" have left, some people have stayed behind and Ma urged them to heed the order given that the wind is expected to whip up in the coming hours and days.

"I really want to emphasize that I know it is not easy to leave. But at the same time, we need people to be safe," she said.

Two "holdover fires" are also burning relatively close to Fort Nelson, triggering evacuation orders for another 80 properties. 

Asked about the extent of the damage done, if any structures have been lost and what the overall impact is expected to be, Ma declined to answer.

"This is a very active situation right now and the focus is on fighting the fire, on keeping the evacuees safe and supporting evacuees during what is likely to be one of the most difficult times of their lives," she said.

"I recognize that people will have questions about damage – either the damage that has already occurred over the weekend or damage projections into the future. Now is not the time to talk about that."

On Monday afternoon, Fort Nelson’s mayor told CTV News that he was still in town liaising with municipal and provincial fire crews and has no idea the extent of the damage since the danger is still high.

“We can't get out into the fire zone to see what kind of damage has been created out there,” said Rob Fraser, as towers of smoke dominated the horizon behind him from three nearby fires. “We moved the emergency operations centre and most of the equipment (to Pink Mountain) so we had continuity for the government so if the worst happened we've got to work as a local government outside of here.”

Chapman said the priority remains protecting the community and that provincial crews are being supported by local firefighters. Calling in reinforcements from other provinces or jurisdictions is not yet necessary.

"I assure everyone that we have the ability to call in those resources when we need them and we will be able to get them quickly," he said.

There are 69 BCWS firefighters assigned to the Parker Lake Fire, being supported by 19 helicopters, 17 pieces of heavy equipment and dozens of people assigned specifically to structure protection.  

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Penny Daflos 

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