British Columbia Analysis

10,000 evacuees and counting: How B.C.'s wildfire fight took a turn for the worse

Changing winds can help efforts on one front and hurt on another

Justin McElroy - CBC News

July 10, 2017

Wildfires, like this one near Princeton, forced roughly 10,000 B.C. residents to flee their homes over the weekend. ( Peter Scobie/CBC)

You can have as many firefighters as you want and the best technology possible, but on a dry day, there are three simple words that can dramatically change any wildfire situation for the worse. 

"The wind changed," said Al Richmond.

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The chair of Cariboo's Regional District, Richmond has been watching over the majority of wildfires being fought across the Interior of British Columbia

For most of Saturday and Sunday, there were plenty of new alerts and small tactical evacuations, but large-scale evacuations weren't necessary. The wildfires were burning away from urban centres. 

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Aggressive wildfires have burned more than 236 square kilometres of B.C. so far this year. Here, a wildfire burns on a mountain in the distance east of Cache Creek on July 10. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press) (Canadian Press)
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Randy Thorne, left, his wife Angie Thorne, second left, their daughter Kelsey Thorne, and granddaughter Nevaeh Porter, 8, view the remains of their home that was destroyed by wildfire on the Ashcroft First Nation, late Sunday. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press) (Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
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Nevaeh Porter, 8, views the remains of her home where she lived with her mom and grandparents that was destroyed by wildfire on the Ashcroft First Nation. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
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B.C. Hydro workers repair power lines among the remains of mobile homes destroyed by wildfire in Boston Flats near Ashcroft. Of the more than 550 fires the province has seen since April, nearly half were ignited in the last two weeks. (Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)
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This house survived a wildfire on the side of a mountain in Boston Flats. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
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Pets belonging to wildfire evacuees are cared for by volunteers outside a curling club being used as an evacuation centre in 100 Mile House on July 8. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
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A wildfire flares up Sunday night near 100 Mile House, forcing thousands to evacuate the region. A couple watch the forest burning in the distance from Highway 97 north of the community. (Mike Zimmer/CBC)
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A helicopter drops water on a wildfire burning on a mountain in Ashcroft on July 9. The federal government has announced it will help B.C. battle more than 200 wildfires sweeping across the province. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
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A boat travels on Lac des Roches as smoke from wildfires hangs in the air near Bridge Lake on July 8. Thick smoke has blanketed much of the region, and it could be weeks before tallies are made and families are informed if they have a home to return to.
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A wildfire burns on a mountain behind an RV park office in Cache Creek in the early morning of July 8. The Thompson-Nicola Regional District in the B.C. Interior declared a local state of emergency, forcing the evacuation of approximately 1,000 Cache Creek residents from their homes. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
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A wildfire burns on a mountain near Ashcroft on July 7. The fire began northwest of the community and spread north. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press) (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
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A series of lightning strikes in the Cariboo region sparked several new fires, including one near the region's largest airport, forcing its evacuation on July 7. (Kris Oakden/Castanet)
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A driver passing through the Ashcroft area tweeted this photo showing heavy smoke billowing from the wildfire on July 7. (Theo Faber/Twitter/Canadian Press)

Sunday afternoon, the wind changed and, hours later, the entire town of 100 Mile House was placed under an evacuation order, with flames less than a kilometre away, and pushing the total number of people under evacuation orders in B.C. to over 10,000. 

"I didn't worry at all, until somebody said the wind was picking up," said resident Tatiana Ruiz. 

"We were at home watching movies, and all of a sudden, they're knocking on the door. We packed up our stuff in two, three minutes." 

'We're ready' 

Ruiz, her family, and close to 2,000 other people drove through the middle of the night, blocked from travelling directly north or south because of the closure of the major highway that goes through town. 

Instead, they were forced to head east on a rural two-lane highway, and then asked to add another four hours to their journey by heading north to Prince George instead of south to Kamloops.

The reason? Kamloops already has thousands of evacuees using emergency services because of other wildfires further south, while Prince George still has plenty of capacity.

"We're ready," said Prince George Mayor Lyn Hall. 

"If we fill up the College of New Caledonia then we have other locations that we'll move into. If we fill those up we have other locations that we'll move into."

A multi-front fight

It speaks to the unique challenge firefighters and emergency officials are facing: There isn't one wildfire.

Instead, there are around a dozen fires of concern over a 500-kilometre stretch in the centre of the province, from Princeton to Quesnel. Each blaze affects a different mix of towns, Indigenous communities and highways. 

"As these fires rage, we are making decisions on the fly every day, every hour of every day, and changing those decisions sometimes in terms of priorities every day as well," said outgoing premier Christy Clark.  

Friday, the priority was near 108 Mile Ranch until a fire near Cache Creek exploded and destroyed a mobile home community and much of the Ashcroft Indian Reserve. 

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B.C. Premier Christy Clark speaks with a woman from Ashcroft First Nation Reserve whose home was destroyed by wildfires  0:50

Sunday, attention was spread throughout the province until the 100 Mile House evacuation.

And Monday, the focus may turn to Williams Lake, the largest city in the Cariboo region, where 10,500 people are surrounded by fires on three sides — including several to the west that were moving towards the city. 

"The threat for us is this huge fire that seems to be progressing in the Chilcotin, proceeding towards Williams Lake. That's going to be difficult to control. There's a lot of uncertainty in that," said Richmond.  

Property loss unknown

It's unknown where the next front will be in the wildfire fight, and it's also unknown how much has already been lost. 

Thick smoke has blanketed much of the region, and it could be weeks before tallies are made and families are informed if they have a home to return to. 

A helicopter carrying a bucket battles the Gustafsen wildfire near 100 Mile House, B.C., on Saturday. More than 230 fires were burning by Sunday. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"It's difficult," admitted Richmond. "Some people know they've lost their structures, and others don't. But we have to wait until the point we can inform people in privacy they've lost their homes, and not in a public forum.

"We need to get some of those figures from firefighters, but at the present time, they're focusing on a fire, not focused on diarizing what structures have been lost."

What happens Monday? The first assistance from the federal government is set to arrive, along with firefighters from other provinces.

Just about everything else is in the hands of nature, in a part of British Columbia where small communities are used to working together. 

"We're all finding it a challenge. There's no debate about that," said Richmond, at the end of another 18-hour day. 

"But we're very resilient people up here. We're going to make this work."  

Remmi Billy, 1, rests on her dad Kris Billy's shoulder as they wait to register at an evacuation centre in Kamloops, B.C., on Sunday. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

With files from Andrew Kurjata and Briar Stewart

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As hundreds of wildfires burn across the province, thousands of people have already been forced from their homes, and many others await evacuation orders.  1:50

A couple watch the forest burning in the distance from Highway 97 north of 100 Mile House. (Mike Zimmer/CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Justin McElroy
@j_mcelroy

Justin is the municipal affairs reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering political stories throughout the Lower Mainland.

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