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Wildfire that forced evacuation of Fort Nelson, B.C., caused by tree falling on wires, mayor says

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The wildfire that prompted the evacuation of more than 3,000 people near Fort Nelson, B.C., was caused by a tree falling on wires, according to the municipality's mayor.

Rob Fraser, mayor of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality, told CTV News he believes the Parker Lake fire began when a dead tree was blown onto power lines by high winds.

The BC Wildfire Service lists the blaze as "human caused," though that designation means: "a wildfire of undetermined cause, including a wildfire that is currently under investigation, as well as one where the investigation has been completed."

The blaze sparked Friday afternoon and caused evacuation orders for all of Fort Nelson and the nearby Fort Nelson First Nation. It has grown to nearly 1,700 hectares in size, according to a Saturday morning update from the BCWS.

Some people living northwest of the community were given just minutes to leave their homes as authorities implemented "tactical evacuations" Friday evening.

"It literally would have been firefighters and RCMP knocking on the doors of those rural community members that are within a kilometre of where that fire is burning and saying, 'You need to get out,'" explained Fraser. 

Now known as the Parker Lake fire, the blaze is considered a "wildfire of note," meaning it is highly visible or poses a threat to public safety.

There are 44 firefighters from the BCWS responding to the wildfire, and 17 helicopters are fighting it from the air. An incident management team and a structure protection specialist are also on scene, along with seven pieces of heavy equipment and 16 support staff, according to the wildfire service.

The fire has knocked out 911 service and disrupted telecommunications in Yukon and Northern B.C., with officials in the territory asking Whitehorse residents needing help to go directly to the local RCMP detachment, fire halls or ambulances stationed throughout the city.

'Please heed the evacuation order'

An update from the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality said the fire situation "remains volatile and fast-moving" Saturday.

Officials urged any remaining residents of Fort Nelson to evacuate, noting one remaining 44-seat bus is still receiving passengers who have no other means of leaving.

"Those remaining in place need to be aware that emergency medical services are not available, nor are groceries or other amenities," the municipality's update reads. "Your safety is paramount. Please heed the evacuation order and stay safe."

Evacuees have been told to register online and head to the North Peace Arena in Fort St. John, about 400 kilometres south. The municipality also asked those who have the means to travel further to consider travelling another 400 kilometres to Prince George, where another reception centre has been set up at Exhibition Park.

Reception centres are also open at the Sudetan Hall in Dawson Creek and the Pomeroy Centre in Fort St. John, according to the regional municipality.  

The fire grew rapidly after its discovery Friday afternoon, surging from an initial 50 hectares to approximately 800 by the service's final update of the night. By Saturday morning, the size had doubled to 1,696 hectares.

Speaking to CTV News Friday night, fire information officer Sharon Nickel, of the BCWS's Prince George Fire Centre, said 70-kilometre-per-hour winds from the west and northwest had driven the fire's explosive growth.

Nickel also noted the region's sustained drought conditions as a contributing factor.

"With that deep, persistent drought, those fuels are really available for consumption, and when those really dry fuels do have the chance to ignite, the spread is quite rapid," she said.

'Anxious, but optimistic'

While winds continue to blow from the west and northwest, both Nickel and Fraser said they expected to see less growth from the blaze on Saturday.

The mayor described himself as "anxious, but optimistic" Friday night.

He said the community has been dealing with two large "holdover fires" from last season that have seen increased activity as the weather has warmed up.

The municipality issued evacuation alerts related to those fires.

While the sudden, rapid growth of the Parker Lake fire was unexpected, Fraser said he did not sense any panic in the community.

"Although it was a surprise, I think people were generally prepared because of the discussion that's been going around in the community over the last couple of weeks," he said.

The mayor was unable to say whether there had been any injuries or any structures damaged in the wildfire.

"Some of those houses that are north and west of the community are at imminent risk," Fraser said. "There's no doubt about that."

Fraser said the centre of Fort Nelson is under less threat from the blaze than the rural areas that surround it.

"Between where the fire is burning now and the community is a large agricultural area – a lot of fields – so that will help to slow down and direct the fire in a more southerly direction," he said.

Air quality impact

Environment Canada said smoke from the blaze has pushed across northeastern B.C. and into parts of Alberta. Edmonton is under an air quality advisory, with hazard levels rated at 10-plus — or "very high risk" — forecast throughout the day.

Meteorologist Heather Rombough said most of the smoke blanketing the city is from the B.C. wildfire, and residents should stay indoors or at least avoid strenuous activity outside until air quality improves.

The weather agency is not forecasting rain in the area until Wednesday evening and is predicting only a 60- per-cent chance of showers for that night and Thursday.

"It doesn't look like there's going to be much precipitation through that area for the next couple of days at least, unfortunately," Rombough said. "By early next week there might be a little bit, but really nothing significant."

With files from The Canadian Press 

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