$100M to help B.C. communities rebuild from fires

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — British Columbia is making $100 million available to communities and residents affected by wildfires to help them rebuild.

Outgoing Premier Christy Clark announced the fund today during a visit to Kamloops, where she met with emergency officials and families impacted by scores of out-of-control fires.

Clark says $600 will be made immediately available by electronic transfer through the Red Cross to people who have registered after being forced from their homes.

She says the transition team for premier-designate John Horgan’s incoming government has been briefed on the establishment of the fund.

Horgan was to meet with evacuees in Kamloops and visit emergency operations centres that are dealing with what his team called the “worsening wildfire crisis.”

Ground and air crews were battling 230 wildfires across B.C. amid continuing hot, dry and often windy conditions that made it a difficult struggle.

The hardest-hit regions are the central and southern Interior.

There are also a number of major blazes burning in northern B.C. but they weren’t posing as immediate a threat as the fires further south, said Kevin Skrepnek, chief information officer for the BC Wildfire Service.

A provincewide state of emergency was declared Friday after about 140 new fires ignited and crews grappled with intense winds. The government said it would allow it to more easily co-ordinate a response to the crisis.

Clark said people are worried about their homes, pets and lifelong possessions.

“We are just, in many ways, at the beginning of the worst part of the fire season and we watch the weather, we watch the wind, and we pray for rain,” she told reporters in Kamloops.

“But our prayers aren’t always answered in these things and so we need to be there to support people in the meantime because there are hundreds and hundreds of people who are scared to death right now.”

On Saturday, the winds eased slightly, but 98 new fires sprang up and existing fires grew in size, Skrepnek said.

The three biggest fires ranged in size from about 14 to 20 square kilometres and drove thousands of people from their homes in the communities of Ashcroft, Cache Creek, 100 Mile House, 105 Mile House, 108 Mile House, 150 Mile House and the Alexis Creek area.

Precise evacuee numbers for the entire province were not immediately available Sunday, but the Cariboo Regional District estimated that as many as 6,000 people were forced from their residences. New evacuation orders affecting dozens of homes were issued on Sunday.

The province has been marshalling all the personnel it can to battle the flames, protect property and try to keep people safe.

More than 1,000 firefighters are on scene, supported by heavy equipment and helicopters. Another 600 personnel are backing them up, plus some 200 contractors. An additional 300 firefighters are being recruited from other parts of Canada and are expected to arrive in B.C. on Monday and Tuesday, Skrepnek said.

Clark said crews have done exemplary work, conducting themselves in the professional manner we’ve come to expect from them.

“As well, communities and residents have also stepped up and rallied together to help all those who need it,” she said.

Despite the crews’ efforts, Cache Creek Mayor John Ranta said a fire burning between Ashcroft and Cache Creek had destroyed dozens of buildings, including at least five houses, 30 trailer park homes and two hangars at a regional airport.

“We have tremendous sympathy for the challenges we are all collectively facing,” Ranta said.

Hundreds of people gathered in a conference room at Thompson Rivers University on Saturday evening where an information session was held for wildfire evacuees.

Rob Schweizer, manager of the Kamloops Fire Centre, said it had been an unprecedented 24 hours.

“We probably haven’t seen this sort of activity that involves so many residences and people in the history of the province of B.C.,” he said.

“I can only imagine what the last 24 hours have been like for the people here in this room. Our hearts go out to you. It’s a very stressful and trying time.”

Deputy manager Cliff Chapman suggested Saturday was a day he’d never forget.

“I’ve been in this business for 17 years, from crew all the way up to where I am now, and I haven’t experienced a day like we experienced yesterday.”

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