A stove sits among the remains of a structure that burned in a wildfire on the Ashcroft First Nation near Ashcroft, B.C., on Tuesday August 1, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

B.C. offers grants to wildfire-affected businesses

WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. — Small businesses affected by devastating wildfires in British Columbia will be getting emergency grants from the provincial government as dry weather extends the fire risk.

Forests Minister Doug Donaldson said small businesses, First Nations whose livelihoods are based on cultural practices and not-for-profit organizations that have been under evacuation orders or alerts are eligible for a $1,500 emergency grant.

“The impacts of the wildfires are going to be felt for a long time in this province,” Donaldson said Monday, calling small businesses “the economic lifeblood of rural communities.”

The grants apply to businesses employing up to 50 people operating in the eastern Cariboo Regional District and for companies affected by wildfire closures along Highways 20, 97 and 26, he said.

Funds will be distributed by the Canadian Red Cross, which received $100 million from the province when a state of emergency was declared in early July.

Claudia Blair, executive director of the Williams Lake Visitor Centre, said businesses have already lost thousands of dollars after the area was evacuated last month, and last week’s closure of the backcountry is expected to create more economic hardship.

“From an economical standpoint it’s going to be pretty tough when all is said and done. I think a lot of businesses are going to be hurt pretty badly. Some may not recover,” Blair said.

“If you are travelling, you’re not going to go into an area where you can’t put a boat on a lake. You can’t go fishing, you can’t go quadding. They’re not going to come here if they can’t do those things on their holiday. But it has to be that way.”

Restrictions in the Cariboo fire centre that covers 103,000 square kilometres of Crown land are intended to maintain safety and prevent human-caused fires but do not affect commercial operators. The ban is expected to remain in place until Sept. 5 as the province grapples with its second-worst fire season on record since 1958.

Businesses are not only losing tourism dollars, Blair noted that about 40 per cent of residents still haven’t returned to the Williams Lake area after being evacuated last month.

“I’m almost overwhelmed. As the executive director of the chamber (of commerce) I’ve never seen such a negative impact on the area,” said Blair of her 31 years in the area where mills and stores have been forced to close temporarily and the livestock industry has been decimated.

BC Wildfire Service spokesman Kevin Skrepnek said 162 wildfires are currently burning across the province and 729,000 hectares of land has been scorched since the start of the fire season, on April 1.

In comparison, the entire province of Prince Edward Island amounts to 566,000 hectares, he said.

Little to no rain is expected in wildfire-ravaged areas, Skrepnek said, adding winds grew the largest wildfire in the province over the weekend, in Hanceville, 60 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake, to nearly 194,000 kilometres. There are almost 300 firefighters working on that wildfire.

Skrepnek said many of the seasonal firefighters and support staff will be returning to their post-secondary education next month, creating staffing challenges.

“We’ve been putting a lot of planning into that crunch that’s going to be coming in a few weeks as people transition out. That’s going to be a mix of people we’re bringing in from out of province.”

Staff Sgt. Annie Linteau urged the public to respect evacuation orders after some people refused to leave their homes on the weekend near Ashcroft, B.C., where the second-largest fire in the province grew to 168,000 hectares, requiring 554 firefighters.

“Certainly, we don’t take those evacuation orders lightly and they are imposed for everybody’s safety,” Linteau said.

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