More wildfires, evacuations expected in B.C. with forecasted hot, windy weather

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — Residents of a village in British Columbia’s southern interior are anxious to see what is left of their homes after one of the hundreds of wildfires raging across the region tore through their community, engulfing dozens of properties and forcing people to flee with little warning.

Mark Sutherland of the Ashcroft Indian Reserve west of Kamloops said Sunday he had only seconds to escape with his girlfriend and two young children before flames overtook his home.

“By the time we got everyone into the cars and we were getting out of the reserve, coming around the bend, (the fire) was already past the house. The next few houses were on fire,” said Sutherland, who used to work on a forestry firefighting ground crew.

“It was so fast. Everything was happening so fast.”

There is no end in sight as provincial officials expect more gusty winds and hot, dry conditions to fan the flames of the more than 220 fires that have destroyed an area covering at least 230 square kilometres.

Kevin Skrepnek, chief information officer with the BC Wildfire Service, said the number of people forced from their homes is likely to rise from the latest estimate of 7,000.

“The situation around evacuation alerts and orders could be quite fluid,” said Kevin Skrepnek, chief information officer for the BC Wildfire Service, on Sunday.

“I would anticipate there would be expansions over the next few days.”

B.C. has committed $100 million to help communities and residents rebuild, while the federal government is sending aircraft.

Christy Clark, the outgoing premier, announced the fund Sunday in Kamloops. She said $600 will be made immediately available by electronic transfer through the Red Cross to people who have registered after being forced from their homes.

“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 said.

“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.”

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

Horgan said the outgoing government has been very co-operative and that he would honour the $100 million Clark had committed to, adding that the province would likely provide even more support as the cost of the disaster grows.

“Whatever is needed to make sure that people are whole after this, we’re going to make sure that happens,” he said, after meeting with officials in Kamloops.

Horgan said he spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Sunday afternoon, who assured him the federal government stood ready to help.

“To have the prime minister say the federal government is there for us when we need it is very reassuring,” he said.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Ottawa has agreed to federal assistance.

The Canadian Armed Forces are helping residents affected by evacuations and airlift emergency workers and equipment.

Three Canadian Armed Forces Griffon helicopters were expected to arrive in Kelowna on Sunday and some larger fixed-wing aircraft are to arrive over the next few days, said Chris Duffy, executive director of Emergency Management BC.

Duffy said the aircraft would be on standby and ready to help wherever they were needed, but that they would not be assisting with fire suppression at this time.

The hardest-hit regions were the central and southern Interior. There were also major blazes burning in northern B.C. but they weren’t posing as immediate a threat, said Skrepnek.

Highway closures trapped Cache Creek resident Jacquie McMahon and her husband overnight Friday on the north side of Lac La Hache, near the 100 Mile House wildfire.

“The orange glow on both sides of us was so surreal and it was growing, growing, growing,” said McMahon, whose home was spared in the fire.

“I just lost my mom (in March), and mom always told us: ‘Never go anywhere without everything you need.’ “

She added, wiping away tears. “So we had everything we needed. And thank goodness.”

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

On Saturday, 98 new fires sprang up and existing fires grew in size, Skrepnek said.

The four biggest fires ranged in size from about 20 to 44 square kilometres and drove thousands 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.

Dozens of public parks in the Cariboo and Chilcotin region were closed to the public.

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

The BC Wildfire Service employs more than 1,000 firefighters and all were either deployed or on days of rest. At least 200 contractors backed them up, while an additional 300 firefighters recruited from other parts of Canada and are expected to arrive on Monday and Tuesday.

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.

B.C. has seen 552 fires to date in 2017, about half of which broke out over the past few days. Skrepnek said the province had spent $46 million fighting wildfires this year as of end-of-day Friday.

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