GALIANO ISLAND, B.C. (CP) – More than 100 forest fire evacuees remained upbeat Tuesday, applauding their island neighbours for taking them in at private homes and bed and breakfasts while brushing aside their disappointment at having to wait to return to their homes.
They had hoped they could return Tuesday morning after a night of perfect weather conditions calmed the fire that has licked to within several hundred metres of some homes.
But fire officials told a community meeting that it would be at least the afternoon before the situation could be considered safe enough to allow them back home.
Firefighters had had a chance to build a fire perimeter around only 40 hectares of the 60-hectare blaze.
Tim Ewart, of the B.C. Forest Service, told residents they owed their houses to the efforts of the island’s volunteer
firefighters who responded quickly when the blaze broke out in a gravel pit and spread with the help of a brisk wind and scorching weather.
“What they did that night was really quite heroic,” he told evacuees gathered for the briefing at the Lion’s Centre. “They kept you folks safe. It was the right thing to do.”
The evacuees cheered and applauded.
Vancouver resident Shelly McMahon has a vacation home on Galiano Island, a picturesque jewel in the Gulf Island chain about an hour-long ferry ride from Victoria.
McMahon said she and her dog were sleeping in her car and were parked at the Lion’s hall, which was serving as the evacuation centre, on Sunday night. A bed and breakfast owner found her and ushered her back to his place, along with her dog.
“I’m obviously disappointed I can’t go home right now, but maybe we can later. The only other thing I really wanted to say is just how wonderful people have been to us and to the other evacuees.
“They’ve taken us into their homes without a second thought,” she said.
Sue Evans, who has lived on the island for 30 years, said everyone is optimistic the fire will be suppressed quickly, but she said people are nervous.
“The island is a tinder box right now and everybody knows it’s just going to take a little bit of bad wind or spark to get it going again. . . We’re going to be nervous for a long time after this. This is the first big fire that’s been here.”
She said when she was told she had to evacuate, she thought of the people in Kelowna that lost their homes to forest fires in 2003.
“I had this sudden overwhelming compassion for those people because suddenly you realize ‘What am I going to take, where am I going to go, my place could be gone when I come back.’ It’s terrifying.
“It’s a surreal kind of existence while you watch the fire being fought. You wish you could do something, but you’re hopeless, helpless. You’re just waiting.”
In all, about 135 people were evacuated.
By Monday morning, the fire had reached 60 hectares and firefighters worried about the stiff winds, but by Monday night, the winds had died to nothing.
“We had favourable conditions, no wind, high humidity, cooler temperatures,” said Jim Pletz, an assistant emergency services co-ordinator for Galiano Island.
“They’re all a plus when it comes to firefighting so everything is looking very positive this morning.”
Firefighters maintained a watch on the blaze overnight and helicopters were up at first light to assess the blaze.
The water bombers that had been pelting the blaze on Monday weren’t necessary on Tuesday, though the fire remained with a priority designation.
Pletz said the fire has been confined on a ridge and has not crossed the defensive perimeter set up Monday.
More than 200 firefighters have been battling the blaze.
No structures have been lost.
Better weather conditions Tuesday allowed emergency officials to lift travel restrictions to the island.
On Monday, the ferry was carrying only residents and emergency personnel but by Tuesday, tourists were allowed back.
The mood on the island – where people generally take it easy – remained upbeat. Although bed and breakfasts suffered cancellations, their rooms were booked up quickly by firefighters and reporters.
At a local pub, a quiet recording of Valdy played while patrons ate the pub’s wholesome food, including salads with organic blueberries.
Record high temperatures have sparked 119 new forest fires in British Columbia over the last two days.
Lightning is responsible for 95 of the blazes in a province where hot, dry weather is expected to continue at least for the short term.
Thirty-four of the fires caused by lightning are burning in the southern interior, with most of the activity between Kamloops and Vernon and around Salmon Arm.
Fire information officer Jean Rucker said all the fires have been held to spot size but that could change overnight with more storms in the forecast.
A small forest fire is also burning on the slopes of Mount Benson near Nanaimo.
Lisa Anderson of the Coastal Fire Centre said aircraft are working to snuff the blaze.