'We are in this for the long haul': No relief in sight as B.C. wildfires rage
Province in state of emergency as thousands are forced from their homes
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Even veteran firefighters were taken aback by the aggressive expansion of wildfires across B.C. over the last two days, and they warned that the situation isn't expected to improve anytime soon.
In Kamloops on Saturday, deputy fire centre manager Cliff Chapman addressed a room full of exhausted evacuees from across the province and confirmed the gravity of the situation.
"I've been in this business for 17 years, from crew up to where I am now, and I haven't experienced a day like we experienced yesterday," Chapman said.
"We have never seen seen wide-scale evacuations like this."
Wind, lightning helped fires ignite and grow
Thousands were forced from their homes in and around the communities of Ashcroft, Cache Creek, Princeton, 100 Mile House, 105 Mile House, 108 Mile Ranch and 150 Mile House.
Nine wildfires of concern were out of control by Saturday night, burning through more than 12,000 hectares of land and threatening buildings in the Interior and Cariboo regions. More than 7,000 people have been forced from their homes, many without a chance to pack so much as an overnight bag.
Hot and dry weather across most of the province in recent weeks set the stage for wildfires to ignite, according to Kevin Skrepnek, chief fire information officer for the B.C. Wildfire Service.
But there were other, unexpected factors that helped the fires grow out of control.
"We knew we were heading into a fairly volatile situation. What we didn't see coming was the extent of wind we had yesterday ... and also a significant amount of dry lightning," Skrepnek said.
Temperatures in the Interior are expected to stay above 30 C through the weekend and it will be much the same in the Cariboo.
There hasn't been rain in the region for weeks, and none is expected anytime soon. Instead, lightning and high winds are expected to continue in the area.
"We are in this for the long haul at this point," Skrepnek said.
Reinforcements on the way
Nearly 2,000 B.C. firefighters fought to contain the aggressive fires across the province on Saturday.
John Rustad, B.C.'s minister of forests, lands and natural resources operations, said 260 firefighters from across Canada are due to arrive in the province by Monday or Tuesday. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said his province was sending three aircraft and 30 firefighters.
Police from the Vancouver area headed to the region to help, and B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Morris said it may become necessary to call in the military.
The Canadian Red Cross has started accepting donations to provide financial assistance and family reunification services, as well as cots and bedding for those forced out of their homes.
A state of emergency remains in effect for all of B.C., giving the government special authority to respond to the fires. It's been 14 years since the last provincewide declaration, when 2,500 fires broke out during the summer of 2003.
On Friday, 142 new fires broke out across B.C., bringing the total number of blazes to more than 180. Many of those fires were caused by lightning, Skrepnek said, but a good number were also human-caused.
Major fires in Princeton, Ashcroft
On Saturday, authorities said some of the most serious fires are expected to get worse before they get better.
One blaze near Princeton grew 10-fold in 24 hours. The fire is now 1,500 hectares in size, whipped up by high winds.
Another one of the largest fires is burning near the village of Ashcroft, about 120 kilometres west of Kamloops. As of Saturday night, that blaze was estimated at 4,200 hectares in size.
The Thompson-Nicola Regional District declared a state of local emergency on Friday and the Ashcroft Hospital was closed as a precaution. The nearby Village of Cache Creek was also evacuated.
"It was awful, it was horrible. If I stood on the roof of my house, I could've touched the bombers going over," evacuee Judy Genest told CBC News on Saturday.
WARNING: The following video contains offensive language.
Going to fuel helicopters with <a href="https://twitter.com/T_Clarky22">@T_Clarky22</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/BCwildfire?src=hash">#BCwildfire</a> <a href="https://t.co/Br2JPZ55MW">pic.twitter.com/Br2JPZ55MW</a>—@AH035
Cache Creek Mayor John Ranta said the fire destroyed two airport hangars and around 30 homes at a trailer park in Boston Flats, about seven kilometres south of the village.
"I was standing on the stairs at the village office and you could see the trees candling," he said. "It was just a frightening thing to behold."
Fire also consumed almost half of the homes in the Ashcroft Reserve, band administrator Jodene Blain confirmed Saturday.
A reception centre for evacuees has been set up in Kamloops at Thompson Rivers University, providing accommodation, clothes and food.
"Some [residents] have seen their homes go up in flames and others aren't really sure what they're going to go back to," said park co-ordinator Gord Davis.
'Serious situation' in the Cariboo
Farther north in the province in the Cariboo Regional District, a series of lightning strikes sparked at least a dozen wildfires in the area around Williams Lake — one of them prompting the evacuation of the city's airport.
One blaze west of 100 Mile House had grown to 3,200 hectares by Saturday. The wildfire service said it's "expected to grow substantially" due to weather conditions.
The Interior Health Authority said patients from Williams Lake facilities were being moved north to Quesnel and Prince George due to heavy smoke in the area.
Another 2,500-hectare fire southeast of Williams Lake forced thousands from their homes and prompted an evacuation alert.
Interior Health said the 100 Mile District General Hospital, two residential care sites and an assisted living facility were evacuated. Parts of the communities of Little Fort and Dunn Lake were also ordered to evacuate Friday night.
The Cariboo Regional District Emergency Operations Centre said Friday that fires were being reported "faster than they [could] be written down."
With files from Lien Yeung, Justin McElroy, Gian-Paolo Mendoza, Maryse Zeidler, Angela Sterritt, Brady Strachan, Rhianna Schmunk, Bethany Lindsay and the Canadian Press.