Military sends extra help for exhausted police officers dealing with B.C. fires

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — Hundreds of Canadian Armed Forces members will support the police response to devastating wildfires in British Columbia, bringing some relief to scores of exhausted officers on the ground.

About 225 soldiers travelled on Thursday from CFB Edmonton to Williams Lake, where they will assist the RCMP with observation and reporting along access roads, help with evacuations of people in distress and assist in delivery of aid.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said he was grateful the federal government had responded to B.C.’s request to provide the military members in order to free up local police.

“I’m pleased that they have acted as quickly as they have done in terms of recognizing the pressure that not only the people fighting the fires are under, but also the RCMP and policing forces,” he told reporters in Kamloops.

“There are a lot of tired people out there who need a break.”

The members will join 150 personnel already in Williams Lake and the surrounding area, which was evacuated last week when a fast-moving wildfire approached the city’s outskirts.

The added personnel will bring with them 60 vehicles of various types, including 10 light armoured vehicles that are uniquely suited to difficult conditions, said Rear-Admiral Art McDonald. He said they will not conduct law enforcement activities and will mostly be unarmed, apart from a few personnel who will carry arms intended to protect members from predatory animals.

“This group of men and women … will work shoulder to shoulder with some impressive federal, provincial and municipal partners, including thousands of first responders, in uniform and out, who are working diligently in service of citizens in need,” McDonald said.

The military has already sent a number of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to the province.

RCMP Assistant Commissioner Eric Stubbs said 500 additional officers have been sent to help in the fire zone from within B.C. and across Canada.

More than 150 fires were burning in the province on Thursday and about 43,000 people remained out of their homes. More than 3,500 square kilometres of land have been scorched by wildfires this year.

Farnworth, who was sworn in Tuesday as part of B.C.’s new NDP government, said he, Forests Minister Doug Donaldson, and Parliamentary Secretary for Emergency Preparedness Jennifer Rice, will meet with federal ministers on the weekend.

On Wednesday, Premier John Horgan extended a provincewide state of emergency for another two weeks.

Evacuees are eligible for $600 from a $100-million provincial fund, and Horgan said that they will be able to access an additional $600 for every two weeks they are displaced.

Former premier Christy Clark, now leader of the Opposition, established the $100-million fund less than two weeks ago and is now calling for the NDP to double it.

Farnworth said the fund is currently sufficient, but the government will spend whatever is necessary on the emergency.

“This is just the start of the fire season,” he said. “I hope we get a honking big rainstorm that puts everything out, but we’re just at the beginning and so we’re going to make sure that people are looked after.”

Donaldson was asked whether B.C. had done enough to prevent wildfires and, in particular, whether he thought recommendations in a 2003 report after the province’s last major wildfire emergency had been adequately implemented.

“Some of the recommendations were acted on. Others need further action,” he said.

“Today, I want to focus on the public safety aspects: people’s homes, people’s livestock, people’s animals, people’s lives.”

Rain fell on many parts of the province on Thursday, but some of the showers came with thunder and lightning. Chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek described the rain as merely a ”blip” before hot and dry conditions were expected to return on Friday.

Residents of the West Bench suburb of Penticton, in B.C.’s Okanagan, were forced to flee when a small fire broke out Thursday. A couple roofs caught fire but the homes were not destroyed, said a city official.

Officials in one of the regions hardest-hit by the wildfires, the Cariboo Regional District, said Wednesday that 41 homes had been lost.

Another eight homes were confirmed lost in the Central Okanagan region last weekend and almost three dozen trailers were destroyed when fire raced through the Boston Flats trailer park next to Cache Creek, B.C.

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