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Fort Nelson evacuees wait it out as incoming weather holds key to B.C. firefight

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As a fast-growing wildfire bore down on Fort Nelson, B.C., Ariel Keating, her girlfriend, their dog Louie and their cat Macaroni joined a sluggish convoy of evacuees heading south on Sunday.

Keating said the scene got “a little hectic” at the gas station, as arguments broke out among evacuees, but all was settled as they got on the road for the 380-kilometre drive from their community in the province's far northeast corner to Fort St. John.

“It got a little bit wild, but it was okay,” Keating said Tuesday outside the hotel where the couple and their pets are now holed up.

Now they await word on the fate of their town.

No homes have been lost as the wildfire nudges toward Fort Nelson, where the weather will play a key role in determining the outcome of the firefight that has put about 4,700 people under an evacuation order, Premier David Eby said.

The early start to the fire season also triggered an evacuation order for hundreds of residents of Fort McMurray, Alta., in neighbourhoods that were devastated by fires in 2016.

The rest of the city is under an evacuation warning, with residents told to be ready to leave at short notice, as a 110-square-kilometre blaze moved to within six kilometres of highways 63 and 881, the main roads south out of Fort McMurray.

There are more than 230 active wildfires across Western Canada, most of them in B.C., where about 130 are burning.

Fort Nelson and the Fort Nelson First Nation are under an evacuation order due to the 84-square-kilometre Parker Lake fire that is burning just a few kilometres west of town.

"The situation is still very fluid and very dependent on weather over the next 24 hours," Eby told an unrelated news conference on Tuesday, while assuring residents that fire crews would "continue to do what is necessary to protect their homes."

An updated estimate from the BC Wildfire Service says the blaze saw a significant increase in size since Monday, when it was mapped at about 53 square kilometres in size.

Forecasts are calling for wind that may blow the fire closer to Fort Nelson, which has been under an evacuation order since Friday.

The Keating household has been given hotel vouchers until May 21, while the firefight continues. Keating said they’re thankful for updates from some Fort Nelson residents who have stayed in town in defiance of the evacuation order..

She said there wasn’t much time to pack anything other than essentials for their animals and maybe a week’s worth of clothes.

Originally from Ontario, Keating said she’d only moved to Fort Nelson a month or two ago from Fort St. John, and now she’s back, connecting with other evacuees who “are all up here in the same position.”

Arriving at the Fort St. John Emergency Services Centre, Keating said the services available to those under evacuation order are “immense.”

“They're really good, other than the fact the huge line-up process is difficult,” Keating said. “But the community of course, Fort St. John has really pulled together. So many companies and individuals are literally reaching out doing everything they can to help.

“We're definitely taking advantage of everything that we can.”

The couple's home, Keating said, is on the opposite side of the town where the fire is approaching, and despite the uncertainty, the pair managed to connect with neighbours and other evacuees on Monday.

“We had a lot of laughs. It was great to just, you know, hang out and laugh with friends,” Keating said. “We've been stressing for days. We kind of need to leave it in nature's hands at this point and just hope.”

Fort Nelson resident Bud Streeper posted a video update on Tuesday showing some rain falling in the area.

"Definitely not a downpour, but a steady little sprinkle right now," he said in the video.

Ken Dosanjh, a meteorologist with Environment Canada, said the community is not likely to see significant rain over the next few days, though up to five millimetres is possible.

He said areas south of town could see up to 20 millimetres Wednesday.

"We do have a Gulf of Alaska low that's crashing into the coast as we speak, and then it's going to start to move through the Interior by Wednesday. And so for Wednesday, we're going to start to notice that low eventually make it to the northeastern parts of the province," he said Tuesday.

"As it does, it's going to be unstable, and it's going to bring some rain associated with it, and possible risk of thunderstorms. However, so far things have been fairly consistent in showing most of the precipitation will kind of lie south of Fort Nelson."

The Parker Lake fire is also contributing to woes south of the border, with smoke from it and other Canadian fires leading to health warnings across the Upper Midwest and Montana.

Fires in B.C. and Alberta filled the skies with haze over parts of Montana, the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin on Sunday, lingering into Monday.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency warned residents to avoid heavy exertion outdoors in its first statewide air-quality alert of the season.

Environment Canada has posted notices for parts of B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories warning about wildfire smoke.

Forecasters say the fine particles in smoke pose health risks and are more likely to impact seniors, pregnant women, people who smoke, infants and young children, as well as those with chronic illnesses.

"Those who are more likely to be impacted should reduce or reschedule strenuous activities outdoors or seek medical attention if experiencing symptoms," the notices say.

On Monday, evacuation orders were issued for the Doig River First Nation and part of the Peace River Regional District as a separate 597-hectare fire burns near the community about 70 kilometres northeast of Fort St. John.

The district told residents to grab what they need and drive south to an evacuation centre in Fort St. John.

An update from Doig River First Nation Tuesday said the area is seeing an increase in humidity and lower temperatures "which is promising, but we are remaining vigilant."

"Sprinklers have been activated amongst the community for additional structural protection measures. Currently the community is safe, animals are taken care of," the statement says.

Northern Rockies Regional Municipality Mayor Rob Fraser, who represents Fort Nelson, said emergency operations centre staff have been calling as many residents who stayed behind as they could and managed to convince some to leave.

Fraser said he suspected about 50 residents were still in town, along with essential and critical staff.

"This is really going to be weather dependent, and so far the weather has been holding with us," Fraser said in a video posted to Facebook. He said winds Sunday kept the flames from moving any closer into town.

He also said there is still electricity and water in Fort Nelson, but power is of particular concern for evacuees worried about their homes.

Fraser said it has been challenging for essential staff, including firefighters, to find food since the evacuation.

In Fort McMurray, the blaze threatening the community is bringing back memories of eight years ago, when fire destroyed 2,400 homes and forced more than 80,000 to flee.

The Beacon Hill and Abasand neighbourhoods saw serious losses that year and are among four neighbourhoods ordered evacuated on Tuesday, along with Prairie Creek and Grayling Terrace.

A fire close to Cranberry Portage in northwest Manitoba has meanwhile forced about 550 residents from their homes. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2024. 

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