Wildfire threat lessens near Jasper, and for some Sask. evacuees

More than 400 wildfires are raging in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, but there's good news for some people ousted from their homes and for those battling to contain an aggressive 70-square-kilometre blaze raging in central B.C.'s Cariboo Region.

Homes destroyed by Puntzi Lake fire in central B.C.

Jasper National Park's Maligne Valley remains closed because of a nearby forest fire. (Parks Canada)

More than 400 wildfires are raging in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, but there's good news for some people ousted from their homes and for those battling to contain an aggressive 70-square-kilometre blaze raging in central B.C.'s Cariboo Region.

Rain, and the prospect of more precipitation and cooler temperatures in the forecast, spells a huge shift in the forest fire situation in Alberta's Jasper National Park. It means the 50-square-kilometre fire that forced the evacuation of 1,000 tourists, hikers and campers from the popular Maligne Valley hasn't gotten any bigger.

There were a number of lightning strikes on Saturday, but no new fires have been reported and the smoke is expected to clear up over the next few days. 

Officials say the town of Jasper is not at risk.

In northern Saskatchewan, 122 active wildfires have forced about 13,000 people from their homes. But officials say that, overall, the fires have stabilized and some evacuees have been escorted home. 

Two massive wildfires in northern Saskatchewan have merged. Together, they cover an area of almost 1,000 square kilometres, and one edge is creeping dangerously close to the town of La Ronge.

Officials organized a convoy on Saturday to help people to return to communities that were not under a mandatory evacuation order — including Missinipe, Otter Rapids, Brabant, Southend and the Athabasca Basin.

Several northeastern communities have not been threatened by the fires eating through extensive areas of the province's forests, but they were cut off when the highway north of La Ronge was closed due to the fire risk.

The highway was to be opened temporarily around suppertime so that emergency officials could escort between 100 and 150 people through the fire zone and back to their homes.

The road was not being opened to commercial vehicles or general traffic.

"We're going to be very careful and we want to make very clear that we are only allowing permanent residents back to their communities," Highways spokesman Joel Cherry said. "We're not allowing people to return to communities where evacuation orders are still in effect.

"The police are going to be there as well and we are going to be checking IDs to be sure as possible that we're just letting permanent residents back."

The convoy was also providing a chance to haul much-needed supplies such as food and fuel to the communities trapped behind fire lines.

Officials say most evacuees won't be allowed to return home anytime soon because of hot, dry conditions and ever-changing winds.

B.C.'s Cariboo Regional District says multiple buildings have been destroyed by the fire near Puntzi Lake. (B.C. Wildfire Management Branch)

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall says his government has already spent its firefighting budget for the year.

Nearly 70 army reservists from Saskatchewan underwent eight hours of training on Saturday before leaving for the wildfire front lines.

In British Columbia, crews are battling some of the 48 new fires burning, raising the total in the province to more than 250. Resources are already stretched thin, so about 70 firefighters from Ontario have been called in.

An aggressive wildfire burning northwest of Puntzi Lake, in B.C.'s Cariboo region has been 30 per cent contained after destroying a fishing lodge and several homes and outbuildings over the July 11 weekend.

However, the fire, burning 150 kilometres west of Williams Lake, has not diminished in size and still covers about 70 square kilometres — roughly six times the size it was on Friday.

On Sunday fire officials said they had managed to establish containment on its southwest flank.

When first reported on Wednesday, the fire was estimated at five square kilometres. That more than doubled to 12 square kilometres on Friday. But by mid-afternoon Saturday, officials said the fire had grown to six times that size, or 70 square kilometres.

An evacuation alert has been issued for another 183 properties to the north and south of the evacuation zone.

The Wildfire Management Branch describes the fire as a Rank 4 or 5 fire, meaning it may cause trees to candle and can spread by crowning or jumping through tree tops.


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