Thousands flee as wildfires ravage B.C. from Lillooet to the Okanagan

Thousands flee as wildfires ravage B.C. from Lillooet to the Okanagan

4 August 2009

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Canada — More than 100 new forest fires are starting each day in B.C.’s forests, and the province has already burned through double its average firefighting budget, officials say.

Thousands of homes have been evacuated as the fires threaten communities throughout southern British Columbia and an area at least 32 times the size of Stanley Park.

Hot, dry weather mixed with lightning storms has pushed the fire risk up to critical levels in 85 per cent of the province, fire information officer Radha Fisher said on Monday.

“The conditions are prime for fires,” Fisher said.

“We have seen big fire seasons in the past and we are seeing one now.”

In an average fire season, which runs from April to October, there are 1,200 fires by the first week of August, according to statistics from the past seven years. This year, there have already been 2,200 fires.

Between 500 and 700 fires are burning in the province on any given day, Fisher said, with 100 to 150 new ones starting each day.

On Sunday, for example, 100 fires began, most ignited by lightning and a handful caused by humans.

On Monday afternoon, another fire broke out on Blackcomb Mountain. It spread to 10 hectares in an area called Ruby Bowl, about one kilometre up the slope from last week’s Crystal Ridge fire, said Mike McCulley, a provincial fire information officer. Helicopters were battling the blaze, and air tankers were expected to help out.

The increase in fires has boosted firefighting costs to $110 million so far this year, Fisher said. That’s up from the average of $50 million a year, based on the past seven years.

One thousand provincial firefighters are battling the blazes across the province, with the help of 800 out-of-province fire fighters. Another 750 people are contracted by the province to cool hot spots and patrol fires. Dozens of helicopters, aircraft and heavy equipment are also spread throughout the provinces as needed.

Another 1,000 people are working behind the scenes as fire information officers and incident managers.

And the fire season is far from over.

“Some fires don’t go out until the snow flies,” Fisher said. “We are going to control them where we can, but some of these fires will only be put out by Mother Nature.”

In 2003, the last extraordinary fire year, August was the peak month for fires said Fisher.

August 2009 has started with a vengeance.

At least 4,850 British Columbians are staying in hotels, schools, or with friends after forest fires forced them from their homes.

The 3,333-hectare Mount McLean fire forced 2,300 Lillooet residents from their homes on Sunday night after the section of fire threatening the town grew from 100 hectares to 300 hectares. Neighbouring first nations communities of Bridge River and Kayoosh First Nations have also been evacuated.

The fire, which is burning within a kilometre of the closest home, is being fuelled by hectares of dry timber, said fire information officer Garry Horley.

“I was watching on the hill last night and every once in a while there’d just be a huge ball of flame. It was just like it exploded,” Horley said. “It was just phenomenal.”

Lillooet resident Karen Spencer and her five cats headed across the river to her friend Julie Brown’s home Sunday night as scorched pine needles and burnt leaves rained down in a copper haze of smoke.

With all the people leaving town, the 10-minute drive took nearly an hour, said Spencer.

“I’m stressed. Am I going to have anything to come home to? I don’t know,” Spencer said. “It could still go any way.”

Brown rolled out the welcome mat by sweeping inches of ash off her deck.

“It looked like an ashtray was blown over on my deck. My chairs were all covered in ash, my flowers, my laundry, everything was covered in ash,” Brown said.

Emergency social services personnel have set up reception centres in fire-affected towns for people without a place to stay. Evacuees can register at the centre and can receive vouchers for accommodation, food and clothing.

Another 2,500 people were under evacuation order in the Fintry area on Saturday after the 7,025-hectare Terrace Mountain fire sped north towards residences.

The almost 2,200 residents in Westshore-Beau Park and Killiney areas remain on Evacuation Alert.

Another 2000-hectare fire in Brookmere, 42 kilometres south of Merritt, forced 50 people out of their homes.

Meanwhile, firefighters from Australia and New Zealand are headed to B.C. to help embattled forest fires battle the blazes that are erupting throughout the province, the B.C. government said today.

Twenty-two personnel from Australia’s State of Victoria and eight personnel from New Zealand are scheduled to arrive Thursday.

They will be assigned to fire duties by the weekend, and are expected to remain in the province for 30 days.

An area of Bella Coola was also being evacuated Monday night as two out-of-control blazes threatened the community of 600 on B.C.’s central coast.

Michele Bazille, the CEO of the Bella Coola General Hospital, said the evacuation order involved approximately 65 households.

“Most residents moved themselves prior to the order. The others will move themselves or we will provide transportation to get to them to the school in Hagensborg or Bella Coola,” Bazille said.

Fire information office Sue Handel describes the situation as a challenging one since there are two fires burning in the area that are relatively close together. One fire is estimated at 150 hectares, the other 200 hectares.

Firefighters in southeastern B.C. continued their effort Tuesday to contain a 1,200 hectare blaze in the Kootenays, about 50 kilometres southeast of Revelstoke.

“We have one fire of note, which is the Galena Bay fire, about 30 kilometres north of Nakusp . . . which started last Monday,” fire information spokeswoman Gwen Eamer said Tuesday. “It is still growing. At this point we don’t have containment. We are working to build fire guards along the west and south flanks which are the flanks that are the closest to communities and the highways.”

Eamer said an evacuation alert remained in place for residents living along Highway 23 in the Halcyon Hot Springs area.

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