Homeward bound: Safety tips for returning B.C. wildfire evacuees

As anxious evacuees begin heading home after being forced out by wildfires, B.C. government officials are cautioning them to take this important steps to be safe.

Getting things back to normal is a step-by-step process after an evacuation order

Evacuees began returning to Cache Creek on Tuesday. (Mike Zimmer/CBC News)

As anxious evacuees begin heading home after being forced out by wildfires, B.C. government officials are cautioning them to take this important steps to be safe.

Top of mind for the approximately 1,000 people returning to Cache Creek, for example, is that the town remains on evacuation alert because of the 52,600-hectare wildfire that has burned through the area.

"Everyone needs to continue to remain in a very high state of vigilance and awareness," said Robert Turner, deputy minister for Emergency Management B.C.

"Going from an order to alert doesn't mean that there is no threat. It means the threat has been reduced."

With that advice in mind, officials advise taking a step-by-step approach to the return home.

Firefighters greeted returnees to Cache Creek after an evacuation order was lifted. (Mike Zimmer/CBC News)

First glance

The first step is to stock up on supplies like flashlights, rubber gloves, drinking water and a first aid kit in case of emergency, according to a government guide to going home.

Then, before entering an evacuated home, take a walk around outside.

"It's really important that families remember, there's of course physical damage to look for — utilities, power lines, that sort of thing," Turner said.

Exposed electrical wiring and gas smells could be the first signs of trouble.


If water has been sprayed anywhere near electrical circuits or appliances, the main breaker should be switched off immediately and only turned on again after an electrician makes an inspection.

Any sewage disposal systems should only be used after checking that they're able to handle waste, and unless local officials have said otherwise, tap water may not be safe to drink.

The province recommends contacting gas, oil or propane providers to do an inspection before using those utilities.

A Cache Creek residents takes a ride around town on Tuesday. (Mike Zimmer/CBC News)

Food safety

The guiding principle here is: "When in doubt, throw it out." Everything from smoke, ash and fire retardant, to warm temperatures caused by power outages can make food unsafe to eat.

If the power has been out for more than three days, everything in the freezer needs to go.

Dented, bulging or otherwise damaged canned foods should also be tossed in the garbage.

Cleaning up

If an insurance policy doesn't cover fire restoration specialists, getting a home back to livable condition could take some elbow grease.

Gloves, goggles and good ventilation are recommended, and children and pets should be kept out of the house while the cleaning is underway. All surfaces should be vacuumed, ducts cleaned, and air conditioning and heating filters replaced.

It could take several rounds of cleaning before the smoky smell is gone. For painted walls, try a cleaner that contains trisodium phosphate.

This garden gnome in Cache Creek was covered by red fire retardant. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

Dealing with fire retardant

According to Interior Health, the red fire retardant covering many homes and vehicles in evacuation zones contains ammonia, which means it can irritate skin and eyes, and cause coughing, wheezing or even nausea and vomiting.

The retardant can be washed away with clean water, and mild detergent should be used for any toys or play equipment that children could touch.

Bleach should never be used to clean up retardant because it will react with the ammonia, creating harmful and potentially explosive gases.

Other things to consider

The province's online guide to re-entry after an evacuation order also includes tips on preparing insurance claims, hiring contractors to repair damaged buildings and bringing livestock and other animals home.

More detailed instructions are also available from Interior Health.