BC officials consider calling in help from US, Australia, to combat wildfires

As hundreds of firefighters from across the country join the battle against raging forest fires in British Columbia, officials in the province say they may have to call in reinforcements from other nations, including the United States and Australia.

A helicopter lifts up after dropping water on a wildfire burning on Terrace Mountain north of Kelowna

As hundreds of firefighters from across the country join the battle against raging forest fires in British Columbia, officials in the province say they may have to call in reinforcements from other nations, including the United States and Australia.

“If we have to go out of country, we do have agreements in place,” said Radha Fisher, an information officer with the B.C. Forest Service.

“We’ve built a relationship with our Australian counterparts and our U.S. counterparts. … We provide assistance where we can and are grateful to receive it when we need it.”

Fire personnel from Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, among others, have already arrived in B.C. as the province suffers through a season that’s already seen more than 2,200 fires.

A formal decision on calling in reinforcements has not yet been made but Fisher says it’s definitely on the table.

“We’re busy, so we’ll certainly look at our contingency resources,” she said.

B.C. forest fire specialists were sent to Australia earlier this year and in 2007 tp help respond to wildfires in that country.

Thousands of British Columbians are currently out of their homes as the province is hit with tinder-dry conditions and record-setting temperatures.

More than 2,000 residents from the town of Lillooet were evacuated on Sunday night, after a fire that’s sat one kilometre away from the community for days suddenly took a turn for the worse.

“We had a pretty significant fire event (Sunday) night on the east slope of the fire, just above the town of Lillooet, and that resulted in the evacuation,” said Garry Horley, an information officer with the B.C. Forest Service.

That blaze, on Mount McLean, grew to more than 33 square kilometres Monday and officials say high winds could fan the flames even more.

“We have the heavy helicopters working continuously, dropping retardant on the fire, trying to hold it where it is,” Horley said, adding that crews managed to fight the fire to a draw on Monday.

He called the conditions in Lillooet “unprecedented.”

“Conditions are just so dry, especially in this area and in a good part of the province. … I think they’ve had about one millimetre of rain here in the past month.”

Jerry Sucharyna with the District of Lillooet said once the evacuation order was signed, getting people out of town went even smoother than officials had hoped.

“Spirits seem to be high around the emergency operations centre,” he said.

“(The residents) just want to make sure everyone’s safe.”

But Sucharyna added that a few Lillooet residents defied the evacuation order and stayed behind.

Horley called their decision troubling.

“It makes our job that much more difficult,” he said.

“We cannot risk our people to go back in and there and try to save them. That weighs very heavy on us, knowing people are in there.”

Brandi Little was among the majority to flee as soon as the evacuation order came down.

Outside the evacuation centre, in Kamloops, Little said she’s thankful for all the help she’s received since being forced from her home.

“When we arrived, there was a whole raft of people willing to help us out and get us situated. The SPCA was here to take our animals,” she said.

“It’s been absolutely wonderful.”

Just a few kilometres from Lillooet, in nearby Seton Portage, about 550 people were evacuated after a fire kicked up Sunday afternoon and spread quickly.

“The fire pushed along a lake and made numerous runs,” said Randy Frank, a fire information officer with the B.C. Forest Service.

“There was plumes of smoke. You had to look almost straight up to see the top of the plumes. And there was grey smoke and deep, billowing mounds of black smoke.”

He said leaving their homes was jarring for some Seton Portage residents.

“There was a lot of people that were scared. They brought out what they could. They couldn’t get all their animals out, everything happened so fast,” Frank said.

“There were people, particularly elders, that were pretty upset and scared.”

The hot and dry conditions have also led to the growth of the Terrace Mountain fire, north of Kelowna and near Fintry.

The blaze was 90 per cent contained before gusty winds sent it surging over a fire guard Saturday evening. The fire has forced 2,500 residents from their homes and has put another 2,200 on evacuation alert.

Crews thought they had a grip on the fire after two days of rain late last month, just after residents were evacuated for the first time. But there’s been no rain since and the fire has grown to more than 75 square kilometres.

About 120 residents of Brookmere, south of Merritt, have left their homes as a 20 square kilometre threatens buildings in that community.

And late Monday, one of two wildfires in Bella Coola grew significantly due to gusty winds. About 50 residents were ordered to leave their homes.

“It’s not the entire region of Bella Coola. It’s a small, specific area, couple of roads in particular,” said fire information officer Sue Handel.

In Whistler, on the same day officials announced that a fire on Blackcomb Mountain was 100 per cent contained, another one flared up.

“I actually called it in. I saw smoke and thought, ’That doesn’t look like it’s 100 per cent contained anymore,”’ said Jessica Delaney, a spokeswoman for the Resort Municipality of Whistler.

Fire information officer Mike McCulley said holdover lightning is believed to have caused the blaze. It’s estimated at 5 to 10 hectares and McCulley said Whistler residents have no need to panic.

“It’s not any closer to town than the fire last week. In fact, it’s further uphill,” he said.

“We know that the mountain has had an orderly evacuation for safety precautions, but there’s no structures up there that we’re currently aware of.”

Blackcomb Mountain is home to the Olympic Sliding Centre, which will host bobsleigh, luge and skeleton events during the 2010 Games.

Much of B.C. is covered by bans on campfires and other open flames. Premier Gordon Campbell has urged people to avoid going into the backcountry until the fire risk diminishes.

The provincial forest firefighting budget for this year was slotted at $61 million. A Ministry of Forests spokesman says fighting the fires has already cost the province $109 million.

(With files from CHNL)

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