New B.C. Premier John Horgan expands state of emergency over wildfires

VICTORIA — British Columbia’s new government is extending the state of emergency for two more weeks as wildfires sweeping across the province’s Interior show no signs of slowing.

Premier John Horgan said his government’s first priority is to support the more than 45,000 people displaced by the fires, which have so far torched more than 3,200 square kilometres of land.

“It’s clear to me that we need to do more,” Horgan told reporters, speaking outside the legislature in Victoria on his first full day as premier. ”We need to give additional support to the communities affected, and the first responders.”

The current state of emergency expires Friday and Horgan said he regrets having to lengthen it.

Horgan said people who are kept out of their homes for more than 14 days will get a second payment of $600, which will be paid out of a previously announced $100-million fund administered by the Canadian Red Cross.

“This is unprecedented,” he said. ”Traditionally, when an emergency is declared, people are usually back in their homes within the two-week period. That may not be the case for many individuals.”

Some people are still out of their homes because of flooding earlier this year, and they are also eligible for the increased funds, he said.

Horgan said 80 per cent of the people who have registered at wildfire evacuation centres set up across the province have already received the first $600 instalment to help with food, shelter and other expenses.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth and Forests Minister Doug Donaldson have been tapped to co-chair a task force assigned with ensuring the emergency response is not disturbed by the transition between governments.

Donaldson said he spoke with former Forests Minister John Rustad on Tuesday afternoon and he supports a non-partisan approach.

“That’s what people need and want,” he said. “Safety of the people first is what our concern is, their livestock, their pets and infrastructure.”

Calmer winds have allowed good progress building guards around scores of wildfires currently threatening communities in central and southern B.C., said chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek. He said the number of active fires is decreasing.

Mounties in Williams Lake issued a statement Wednesday that said a local resident had threatened to kill firefighters if they continued to conduct back burning. RCMP said the resident was with a group of men, one of whom was allegedly carrying a handgun on his hip.

RCMP located the 44-year-old resident, who acknowledged his statements were made in a “time of extreme stress.” Charges are not being considered, but to mitigate the risk, his firearm has been temporarily seized, police said.

Police arrested the 57-year-old man accused of wearing the handgun and found a loaded, insecure handgun and six rifles in his vehicle. His firearms were seized and he has a court appearance in early November.

The wildfire service said Wednesday that 155 fires are currently burning and 15 of those are threatening communities.

Fire information officer Navi Saini said a person was injured while driving in an evacuated area west of Williams Lake.

She said the person inside the vehicle had been in the area in an attempt to fight the fire.

“This incident is just an example that shows how the public getting involved can impact our own operations,” she said.

Officials said Wednesday that a fire that destroyed eight homes north of Kelowna is 100 per cent contained and residents of 58 properties in Lake Country can immediately return home, although an evacuation alert remains in place.

A cause of that fire is still under investigation.

Residents of Cache Creek, which has a population of about 1,000, returned home Tuesday following a lengthy evacuation and Al Richmond, chairman of the Cariboo Regional District, said officials are co-ordinating re-entry plans for 100 Mile House and Williams Lake.

“We’re in the middle of summer, so hot spots are going to exist and it’s likely that those people when they come home could still be, particularly in the rural areas, on a state of alert for some time,” Richmond said.

An air quality advisory that had been in effect for Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley Regional District was ended on Wednesday, after stronger winds improved the situation.

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