Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got a first-hand look Monday at British Columbia's wildfire crisis, which has forced roughly 50,000 people from their homes over the past month.
After meeting with wildfire personnel in Williams Lake, B.C., and surveying the Cariboo region by helicopter, the prime minister held a news conference with Premier John Horgan.
"The first thing that I really understood from being able to see the scale [was] the challenges, but also the successes; of fires stopped just short of the runway, of ranches surrounded by blackened areas that are still standing because of the efforts of our firefighting crews."
Trudeau said a main focus of his visit was to thank the first responders for their "extraordinary" work over the past four weeks.
"I've seen people at the edge of exhaustion keep on pushing through, motivated by the tremendous support they're getting from communities," he said. "This is what Canadians do — we stand up for each other in times of difficulty."
Williams Lake is the largest city in the region; its residents were allowed to return home last Thursday after a 12-day evacuation.
In the run-up to Trudeau's arrival, some questioned why he was arriving 26 days into the wildfire crisis, which has forced the evacuation of several communities in July.
The prime minister responded by saying he didn't want to be a distraction during the emergency.
"It's extremely important to allow the first responders to do their work," he said. "I'm pleased to be here now, but my first priority, as always, is not getting in the way of work emergency services does. … We were looking for a time for me to come to thank people but not get in the way."
Trudeau also defended the federal government's decision not to match donations made by individual Canadians to the Red Cross. However a week ago, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the federal government would contribute an amount equal to whatever the Canadian Red Cross spends on direct aid to registered fire evacuees in B.C.
"We work with partners, we listen to the B.C. chapter of the Red Cross on the best way Canada can support," Trudeau said Monday, noting the government has contributed $27 million in federal assistance to date.
"We listen to the experts on the best way we can help."
Earlier in the day, Trudeau met with Canadian Armed Forces and RCMP members in Williams Lake, as well as with officials from the B.C. Wildfire Service.
"On behalf of all Canadians, thank you for the strength and the leadership you've shown over the past weeks and will continue to show," he told the group of approximately 150.
"We are extraordinarily lucky as a country [that] in difficult times and situations, we step up and are there for each other. It goes to the heart of who we are."
Around 400,000 hectares have been burned in B.C. so far this wildfire season — already the third highest total since 1950 — and the crisis shows no signs of abating.
With evacuation alerts still in place for much the B.C. Interior between Quesnel and Cache Creek, the fires have affected almost all people and businesses in the region, whether they've lost property or not.
"Those are significant issues that we're going to be dealing with, not just in the next number of months, but potentially in the next number of years," said Horgan.
"We will be there for the rebuild," said Trudeau.
"We will be there for the challenges to come in the months to come, and this is a time for us to stand together and for the federal government to once again say we will be there for Canadians in times of difficulty."With files from Lisa Johnson