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Thick smoke hinders fight against B.C. wildfires

There are over 100 wildfires burning across British Columbia and thick smoky conditions are hindering efforts to extinguish them.

Environment Canada lists air quality in Kamloops at an 8 or 'high risk'

The smoke envelopes Kamloops. Environment Canada has listed the air quality index at 8 for the city or what it calls "high risk." (Briar Stewart/CBC)

More than 840 fires have charred about 4,260 square kilometres in B.C. since April 1, and officials say hot, dry weather is expected to worsen conditions in the days ahead as smoke hangs over several communities.

"It creates a lot of safety issues for our aircraft," said Kevin Skrepnek with the B.C. Wildfire Service. "We can't fight what we can't see out there."

The Kamloops Airport tweeted Tuesday that smoke had forced several flights in and out of the area to be delayed or cancelled.

Environment Canada has declared the air quality in Kamloops an 8 — or high risk — on its air quality health index. 

With record-breaking temperatures expected across much of the province, it will be increasingly important to ensure crews get proper hydration, nutrition and rest, Skrepnek added.

Plans are also in place in case anyone needs to be airlifted out of a fire zone due to heat-related illness, but Skrepnek said he believes that hasn't happened yet this season.

Evacuation order expanded

Around 3,700 people were fighting 138 fires across British Columbia on Tuesday. Over 6,000 people are under evacuation order.

The Cariboo Regional District issued an expanded evacuation order for the Kluskus, Blackwater and Clisbako area, which is about 100 kilometres west of Quesnel. 

It's a further expansion of the order issued on Sunday, July 30

The Cariboo Regional District also issued an expanded evacuation alert for the area south and west of Quesnel to Tatelkuz Lake. Residents are advised to be prepared to leave their premises if an order is issued.

Trees burned by wildfire are seen in this aerial view from a Canadian Forces Chinook helicopter near Williams Lake, B.C. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

More than 300 structures destroyed

Officials have also begun to tally up the destruction wrought by the wildfires, with some estimating more than 300 structures have been destroyed. 

The lost structures include 71 homes, 116 outbuildings such as sheds and barns, and three commercial buildings, said Robert Turner with Emergency Management B.C.

Another 115 destroyed buildings have yet to be identified.

Turner said the Cariboo Regional District, the Thompson-Nicola Regional District and the Ashcroft Indian Band have been the hardest hit by the losses but no critical infrastructure has been destroyed.

There has also been theft of critical equipment, the province said in a news release Tuesday. 

One water pump and 10 100-foot (30 metre) hoses went missing near the Harrop area, which the province says is hindering suppression efforts on the Harrop Creek widlfire, burning 10 kilometres south of the communities of Harrop and Procter.

The RCMP is asking anyone with information about the theft to contact the RCMP or B.C. Crime Stoppers. 

Outside personnel to arrive

There are cuurently 761 fire personnel from outside of the province helping with the fires and another 108 firefighters and support staff from Mexico are set to join them later this week.

This marks the first time crews from that country have fought wildfires in B.C., although the Mexicans have been deployed to Alberta several times, Skrepnek said.

"They're going to be valuable assets to us, just given what we've got," he said. "There's really no relief in sight."

It's common for people in the wildfire industry to work in different jurisdictions, and British Columbia's need currently outstrips crews that are available elsewhere in Canada, he added.

"No agency can be prepared for their highest potential fire season," he said.

With files from the Canadian Press