British Columbia

B.C. fire crews brace for windy weekend, potentially worsening conditions

A cold front sweeping across southern B.C. on Saturday afternoon could bring wind and spread the wildfires.

State of emergency in province: nearly 16,000 people displaced and another 11,000 under evacuation alert

In an Ashcroft, B.C.-area cemetery ruined by wildfire, fire retardant dumped on a grave marker creates an eerie sight. (Gilbert Rowan/Radio-Canada)

With gusty winds in the weather forecast, the weekend could be a tough one for fire crews battling the many wildfires burning across B.C.'s Interior.

Although Friday saw new evacuation alerts and a new evacuation order, officials in British Columbia's Cariboo region savoured a relatively calm day.

"Mother Nature cooperated again and the firefighters were able to get some work done," Cariboo Regional District chair Al Richmond said. "The wind is potentially a concern."

Richmond said regional officials are dealing with a host of new issues caused by the fires, such as disrupted garbage pickup, a lack of supplies in smaller stores and disconnected power in some communities.

The church on the Ashcroft First Nation reserve remains standing. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb — whose city of about 11,000 remains under an evacuation alert — says while the weather has been calm, the city's emergency centre has been busy.

"We've been getting all the logistics tied up as far as evacuation routes and bus lineups, whatever we need in case we have to go to evacuation," he said. "We've got it as much in control as we can."

Officials have set up family reunification services in Williams Lake and a centre for stranded travellers in the Lower Mainland at the Cloverdale arena.

The province also closed four lakes needed for water bombing.

Nearly 16,000 displaced

The current spread of fires — around 167 in total — took hold last Friday after a wind and lightning system sparked a spate of new blazes across the region.

A week later, the province is still under a state of emergency, with nearly 16,000 people displaced from their homes and thousands more under evacuation alert

Chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek said his No. 1 priority now is Saturday afternoon, when a cold front is expected to swing across B.C. and could bring significant winds.

"We're keeping a very close eye on this moving front," he said. "We're expecting [wind] right across southern B.C."

In a special statement, Environment Canada said widespread winds of 20 to 50 kilometres per hour are expected and will push into the Kootenays by early Sunday. In some Interior valleys and canyons, winds could reach up to 70 kilometres per hour. 

Meteorologist Matt MacDonald calls the system a "dry" cold front, which could create lightning but no rain. He says rain for B.C.'s Interior isn't expected until at least next Thursday or Friday. 

Wind can spread wildfires further by lifting sparks out of previously contained zones into new ones. It can also increase the size of already-burning wildfires by increasing the flow of oxygen.  

Preparations underway

Fire crews are working hard to prepare before the expected wind storm hits on the weekend.

Skrepnek said crews have conducted some significant controlled burning around Williams Lake and 100 Mile House to turn off any lingering fuel supply. 

A crew conducts a controlled burn in Fort McMurray, Alberta in April 2017. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Centres across the province are also preparing for a greater influx of new evacuees.

The emergency social services centre in Kelowna is securing 500 extra beds in preparation for the weekend. Vernon is taking a look at its inventory in anticipation of the weekend.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday the creation of a new ad hoc federal cabinet committee focused on the B.C. wildfires. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, one of the committee's members, says it will group all the relevant ministers who can provide support for the province in one convenient area.

Since April, wildfires have destroyed 111,000 hectares in B.C. and the province has spent $66.6 million on direct fire costs.

Good news

Though the relief of rain did not come during the week, crews did make breakthroughs in some areas of the province.

There have been no major new fires over the last 24 hours, according to Skrepnek, and the evacuation alert issued for properties near Naltesby Lake, an area southwest of Prince George, was rescinded yesterday. 

Amidst reports of looters and scammers, thousands across the province and country have arrived to fight fires or help with emergency efforts. 

Keith Kerrigan was one of several hundreds lined up to volunteer to help evacuees yesterday in Prince George, B.C. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC)

Prince George, for example, has welcomed more than 6,200 evacuees since the emergency began. And more than 1,800 volunteers in the city have signed up to help at evacuation centres, with many others opening their homes and gathering donations.

"We just have to do what we can to help," said volunteer Keith Kerrigan.

Evacuees wait anxiously

As the fires rage on, fatigue is setting in for some of the evacuees who have been out of their homes for almost a week now — especially since there is no clear end in sight.

At the Kamloops evacuation centre, some evacuees said they were worried about what the situation is like back home. But they said they trusted fire personnel to do their best to protect homes and properties.  

Percy Minnavarriet, an evacuee from Ashcroft, is meditative.

"I think there has been a lot of patience, because I think a lot of people realize the scope of the danger that is back there now.  It's Mother Nature ... what do you do."