Thousands of people in and around Williams Lake have been forced out of their homes as strong winds threaten to intensify wildfires in the area.

On Saturday evening, wildfire officials issued an evacuation order for the 11,000 people remaining in the community as well as those in the areas west of the city, bordered by Highway 97. About half the residents of Williams Lake had already left.

Cariboo Regional District chairman Al Richmond said the fires are not an immediate threat to the city, but the evacuation was ordered to ensure residents wouldn’t become trapped by the fast moving flames.

“The reason for the evacuation call now for the city and the surrounding areas that were under alert…is because the highway has been compromised towards the north of the city,” Richmond said, adding that “we don’t want to be in a situation where we have no access for the number of people who have to be moved out of here.”

Emergency Management BC is instructing drivers to head south from Williams Lake on Highway 97. Officials have set up a checkpoint in Little Fort where drivers will receive further directions.

Travelling north from Williams Lake is not an option.

Richmond said the community of Prince George is “best positioned to house a large number of evacuees.” Evacuation centres in Kamloops are already full of evacuees from other fires.

The chairman also encouraged evacuees to stay with family and friends if possible in order to reduce the strain on space and resources.

Officials are warning that strong winds and lightning could cause dozens of wildfires raging across the province’s Interior and Cariboo region to spread.

Environment Canada is forecasting wind speeds ranging between 20 km/h and 70 km/h starting Saturday evening.

“Given these winds, we are expecting the very real possibility of extreme and violently aggressive fire behavior out there, so we have been emphasizing that to the public over the last few days, and certainly we want everyone to keep themselves out of harm’s way,” said Kevin Skrepnek, chief information officer with the BC Wildfire service.

The fires, which prompted a province-wide state of emergency last week, have already forced about 17,400 people out of their homes.

And officials are anticipating more evacuations as the weather turns.

Another evacuation order was issued Saturday morning for the remote Clisbako area in the Cariboo region.

Later in the day, emergency officials issued an evacuation order for thea area bordered by the Fraser River, the Quesnel River, Anthone Lake, MacIntosh Lake and the existing order at 150 Mile House.

In the Okanagan, the RCMP conducted door-to-door evacuations in the area of Lake Country and Okanagan Centre.

An Emergency Support Services reception centre has been opened for residents evacuated from that fire, which was reported shortly after 4:30 p.m.

Fire crews and equipment from Kelowna, West Kelowna and Ellison fire departments along with BC Wildfire Service air support are working together to get the 20-hectare blaze under control.

Crews are currently battling an estimated 161 fires across the province, but Skrepnek said “that number does fluctuate minute by minute.”

Fourteen of those fires pose an immediate threat to communities, he said. The largest of those is located in Ashcroft and now covers about 147 square kilometres.

A 50-square-kilometre fire near 100 Mile House is 20 per cent contained, Skrepnek said. In Princeton, B.C., a wildfire covering more than 30 square kilometres is 35 per cent contained.

Crews are still trying to do as much preventative work as possible in areas like Williams Lake, he said.

“We’ve done quite a bit of proactive work in terms of trying to get rid of the fuel that’s left for those fires to consume kind of in and around the city,” Skrepnek said. “At this point, we’re prioritizing the safety of our crews, the safety of the public in terms of getting people out of harm’s way and doing everything we can also to keep the highways open if people are needing to evacuate.”

Just over 3,000 personnel are working under the BC Wildfire Service, including 400 people from other provinces and 1,000 contract firefighters.

Fire suppression alone has cost the province $77 million so far, Skrepnek said.

An estimated 631 wildfires have broken out since April 1, totaling about 1,280 square kilometres of land.

With files from The Canadian Press