Canada – Wide swaths of forest in British Columbia’s Interior are burning after a lightning storm Friday afternoon ignited brush parched from weeks of hot, dry weather.
MORE DETAILS: B.C. wildfires: the current situation
The Cariboo, Kamloops and Southeast regions of the province have been under extreme fire danger for the past two weeks, and hot, dry conditions including temperatures up to 39 C led to a highly combustible environment.
With Friday’s lightning storm, fires spread rapidly, worsened by strong wind gusts.
Evacuation orders were issued to multiple communities and the province declared a state of emergency.
Outgoing Premier Christy Clark announced a $100 million relief fund for affected communities.
Kevin Skrepnek, B.C.’s chief wildfire information officer, said over 140 fires started on Friday and nearly 100 more on Saturday, followed by a few dozen on Sunday.
He said 220 active fires are burning across the province.
Over 14,000 evacuees
Skrepnek said firefighters are focusing their efforts on a dozen major fires near larger communities, some of which have been evacuated.
So far, the province estimates 14,000 people have been displaced.
“We’re focused on protecting critical infrastructure, protecting communities and, quite importantly, keeping our highway routes open. Given the movement of people and given the evacuations, we want to make sure those access routes are available so people can get out if they need to,” he said.
The entire towns of 100 Mile House and Cache Creek have been evacuated and the City of Williams Lake, with over 10,000 residents, is on evacuation alert as Monday ends.
Thirty homes and two airport hangars were destroyed near Cache Creek, and fire also burned down several buildings and homes on the Ashcroft Indian Band reserve.
Multiple highway routes in and out of the region are partially closed due to the fires.
As a further complication, evacuees from 100 Mile House a town of nearly 2,000 people were advised to go to Prince George, about five to seven hours north, instead of Kamloops, about two hours south, as the Kamloops emergency response system was at capacity.
Evacuees, once safe, are urged to register with the Canadian Red Cross online or by phone at 1-800-863-6582.
Roger Brown, a rancher from 100 Mile House, fled his ranch along with his wife and two horses, but had to leave 80 head of cattle behind.
Having lived in California, Brown said he’s no stranger to forest fires, but this one spread particularly quickly.
“It’s been so dry up here. Everything is basically fuel.”
Brown is unsure when he’ll be back.
“When these kinds of things happen, you have to use good judgment,” he said.
“Even though some people try and stay, [orders] need to be heeded because fire is something you don’t want to play with.”
Hot, dry, and smoky
Weather conditions for the region are not expected to provide much relief over the next few days.
It is forecast to be hot and dry, with temperatures in the mid-20s and low 30s today. Temperatures are expected to climb to the high 30s by the end of the week.
“We’re still looking at a deteriorating situation,” said Bob Turner, the assistant deputy minister for Emergency Management B.C. “We are looking at many weeks to come of a challenging environment and public safety will remain the overriding priority.”
There is no rain expected through Tuesday, except in the Columbia-Kootenay region where there is also a chance of lightning.
Environment Canada meteorologist Matt MacDonald said the long-term outlook is not much better.
“We’ve been poring over all the models trying to find some rain for these fires,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s a very stubborn weather pattern with us. While we may be enjoying lots of sunshine, unfortunately, there’s just no rain.”
Wind gusts a major problem on the weekend were not expected to be strong Monday, although there was a chance gusts could come in during the afternoon.
‘It could get much, much worse’
Smoke from the fires is reducing visibility and causing poor air quality. Environment Canada has issued advisories for multiple regions across the province.
On Monday, the province issued a ban on campfires in the province with the exception of Haida Gwaii and a strip on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Dozens of provincial parks have been closed due to the fires.
Help coming from outside
Extra personnel from across the province and country were expected to arrive in the region Monday to help contain the fires. Skrepnek said the military is assisting with transportation.
Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said lessons were learned after the disastrous Fort McMurray fire in Alberta last year and they will be applied to this effort especially when it comes to co-ordinating between various agencies.
“Don’t assume that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing,” he said. “The management of this situation is in the province of British Columbia. They are the lead agency. The government of Canada is there to assist.”
Goodale urged residents who may be forced to leave their homes to have a plan, be ready and carry identification.