VICTORIA — British Columbia’s new government is extending a state of emergency for two more weeks as wildfires sweeping across the province’s Interior show no signs of slowing.
Premier John Horgan said his government’s first priority is to support the more than 45,000 people displaced by the fires, which have so far torched more than 3,500 square kilometres of land.
“It’s clear to me that we need to do more,” Horgan told reporters Wednesday outside the legislature on his first full day as premier. ”We need to give additional support to the communities affected, and the first responders.”
The current state of emergency expires Friday and Horgan said he regrets having to lengthen it.
Horgan said people who are kept out of their homes for more than 14 days will get a second payment of $600, which will be paid out of a previously announced $100-million fund administered by the Canadian Red Cross.
“This is unprecedented,” he said. ”Traditionally, when an emergency is declared, people are usually back in their homes within the two-week period. That may not be the case for many individuals.”
Some people are still out of their homes because of flooding in the Okanagan earlier this year, and they are also eligible for the increased funds, he said.
Horgan said 80 per cent of the people who have registered at wildfire evacuation centres set up across the province have already received the first $600 instalment to help with food, shelter and other expenses.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth and Forests Minister Doug Donaldson have been tapped to co-chair a task force assigned with ensuring the emergency response is not disturbed by the transition between governments.
The wildfire service said 140 fires are currently burning and 15 of those are threatening communities. The cost of fighting fires since April 1 has surpassed $105 million.
Calmer winds have allowed good progress to build guards around scores of wildfires currently threatening communities in central and southern B.C., said chief information officer Kevin Skrepnek. He said the number of active fires is decreasing.
Mounties in Williams Lake said one man was arrested and firearms were seized after a resident threatened to kill a firefighter if he continued to conduct back burning. The resident was with a group of men, one of whom was wearing a handgun on his hip, police said.
RCMP said they’re not considering a recommendation of charges against the 44-year-old man who made the threat, as he acknowledged his statements were made in a “time of extreme stress,” but the 57-year-old man accused of wearing the handgun was arrested. Guns were seized from both men.
“We know and we can appreciate that these wildfires have been stressful on everyone involved, but we have to continue working together to fight them,” Staff Sgt. Annie Linteau said.
“Certainly, that includes respecting the firefighters who are out doing their jobs so that everyone has a home to come back to.”
Fire information officer Navi Saini said one person was injured in a crash while driving in an evacuated area west of Williams Lake. The person had been in the area in an attempt to fight the fire on their own, she said.
Officials said a fire that destroyed eight homes north of Kelowna is 100 per cent contained and residents of 58 properties in Lake Country can immediately return home, although an evacuation alert remains in place.
Residents of Cache Creek, which has a population of about 1,000, returned home Tuesday following a lengthy evacuation. Al Richmond, chairman of the Cariboo Regional District, said officials are co-ordinating re-entry plans for 100 Mile House and Williams Lake.
“We’re in the middle of summer, so hot spots are going to exist and it’s likely that those people when they come home could still be, particularly in the rural areas, on a state of alert for some time,” Richmond said.
Highway 1 reopened Tuesday, re-establishing another link between the Interior and the Lower Mainland, and an air quality advisory that had been in effect for Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley ended Wednesday after stronger winds improved the situation.