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Officials urge people defying evacuation order in Tumbler Ridge, B.C. to flee immediately

An "incredibly volatile" wildfire is moving closer to the B.C. community of Tumbler Ridge and officials are urging residents who have stayed behind in spite of an evacuation order to leave immediately.

The vast majority of the community, which is in the northeastern part of the province and has a population of 2,400, have packed up and fled since the order was issued on Thursday. Officials said about 150 people remain, some of whom are first responders and emergency personnel and others who are residents. Officials did not say exactly how many people are defying the order.

Since then, the West Kiskatinaw River wildfire has grown from an estimated 9,600 hectares to an estimated 23,000 hectares. Sparked just three days ago, the blaze is suspected to be lightning-caused.

“We’re seeing this fire growing with the wind but also against the wind, so it’s a backing fire. It’s essentially been growing on all flanks on the head and on the rear of the fire,” said Karley Desrosiers, a fire information officer with the BC Wildfire Service.

When it ignited it was approximately 21 kilometres from the community and now it is fewer than five kilometres away, according to an update given at a news conference.

Tumbler Ridge's fire chief Dustin Curry opened his remarks by thanking everyone who worked to support the evacuation, which he said proceeded smoothly thanks to community co-operation and the work of first responders and volunteer search and rescue crews.

Acknowledging that being told to pack up flee immediately can be frightening and frustrating, he urged those who remain to follow the order for their own safety.

"Really, the best way that you can help us is to evacuate yourself, right? We understand that that's not an easy decision to make, but we really want to stress the importance of having everybody leave so that we can make sure that we're focusing our efforts in the right places," he said.

"If we get into a situation where there's going to be a need to evacuate (the remaining residents) on very short notice, we're not going to have the resources available to make sure that they get out."

The fire has already closed one of the highways heading out of town and the possibility remains that further fire growth could shut off other escape routes and create additional hazards like downed power lines, according to Desrosier.

Given how fast-moving and aggressive the fires in the region have been this year, Desrosier says the situation could quickly become catastrophic for those who have not left the community.

"We won't put our folks in the line of fire or in imminent danger to rescue those that have chosen to stay behind," she said.

"We want to do our best to save or to help the people that we can but it's not always an option."

Tumbler Ridge resident Esmarelda Pretorius is one of the residents who left with virtually nothing.

“I literally did laundry the day before so I took the laundry basket and left. That’s it,” she said.

Pretorious, who is 30 weeks pregnant, said residents were anxious as they got out of town with little notice.

“Nobody is listening to the speed limit at this stage, but obviously running from a fire, you have to go,” she explained.

She is grateful she and her husband are safe and staying with a family in Chetwynd and that the smoke in her home town had become concerning. 

“It’s hard to breathe with a big belly and a baby growing,” said Pretorius who moved with her husband to B.C. from South Africa last December.

Tumbler Ridge Mayor Darryl Krakowka is one of those who stayed behind at the request of emergency officials. He said he will leave as soon as he’s instructed to.

The mayor said he is aware that some residents have chosen not to leave, despite the evacuation orders.

“I understand people’s decisions that they make to stay, but it is a concern. It puts a little more workload on the groun," he said.

Meanwhile, he remains optimistic his community will be protected from the flames.

“We have amazing boots on the ground with our local volunteer fire department. There’s also the other fire departments that have come to assist. As well, BC Wildfire Service has brought in sprinkler protection system and there’s more sprinkler protection units arriving today,” he said.

Evacuees have been instructed to go to an emergency reception centre in Dawson Creek in order to be connected with shelter and support.

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