British Columbia

Ignoring wildfire orders putting lives at risk, say B.C. officials, as 6,200 properties now evacuated

Emergency officials on Tuesday implored British Columbians to obey wildfire evacuation orders, citing their growing concerns about residents refusing to leave in the face of fires, and some incidents of verbal abuse at road checkpoints.

Province surpasses 10-year wildfire average by 87 per cent, as thousands remain under evacuation notices

Firefighters work near the Grandview Bench wildfire, roughly 10 kilometres southeast of Salmon Arm, B.C., in this photograph released by the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District on Tuesday. (Columbia-Shuswap Regional District/Twitter)

Emergency officials implored British Columbians to obey wildfire evacuation orders, citing their growing concerns about residents refusing to leave in the face of fires, and some incidents of verbal abuse at road checkpoints.

Across the province on Tuesday, 262 wildfires were still active, most of them concentrated in the Kamloops fire region, provincial officials said at a news conference. More than 6,200 properties have been ordered evacuated.

Katrine Conroy, the province's minister for forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development, said she empathizes with the disruption those orders have had. Some cattle ranchers have expressed concern they received too little time to flee major fires, and too little support during the current emergency.

"I live on a ranch with cattle and other animals, and I understand the desire to stay behind and protect your home, your animals, and your property," Conroy said, adding that members of her own family had to temporarily leave their home this summer. Her government announced funding on Tuesday to help ranchers and farmers who are facing drought conditions, losses of cattle feed and fires threatening their herds.

"I know people are scared and frustrated, and it's human nature to want to protect what's yours and what you worked for years to create," she said. "But … it's just too dangerous to stay behind.

"You simply put your life and lives of others at risk. We can't ask firefighters to risk their lives and face down a wall of flame because someone made an unwise decision to not evacuate."

We can't ask firefighters to risk their lives and face down a wall of flame because someone made an unwise decision to not evacuate.- Katrine Conroy

Meanwhile, an RCMP spokesperson said that evacuees and other residents must respect police checkpoints on roads, as well as area restrictions. She said tempers had flared in several instances at checkpoints, according to officers on the ground.

B.C. RCMP Staff Sgt. Janelle Shoihet said increased vehicle traffic due to tourism in areas with wildfires have put pressure on checkpoints, including some individuals trying to bypass police-enforced area restrictions.

"There have been some incidents where people have been verbally abusive to those individuals that are just doing their jobs," she said. "Those checkpoints are put in place for everyone's safety … Don't try to go around."

The province said it already has enough tools to enforce area restrictions without additional fines, but said those who choose to ignore orders could later find their planned evacuation route blocked or communications systems broken, leaving them unable to get essential information.

"The thought of losing community members terrifies me, and the entire wildfire service team here," said Rick Manwaring, deputy minister of Conroy's department, which oversees B.C.'s wildfire service. "We spend every day focusing on that … I urge everyone not to underestimate wildfires under these conditions."

Despite recent progress containing several major fires, with the help of recent rainfall, weather conditions are expected to worsen later this week with temperatures forecast in some parts of southern B.C. into the high 30s.

A total of 6,506 square kilometres have burned so far this year — an 87 per cent increase above the past decade's wildfire season average.

Meanwhile, there are 63 evacuation orders covering more than 6,200 properties, according to Emergency Management B.C.

On Tuesday, the Thompson-Nicola Regional District lifted its evacuation order for 90 properties near the July Mountain wildfire, near the Coquihalla Highway north of Hope.

The Regional District of North Okanagan also rescinded one of its orders to evacuate areas around Irish Creek Road, which were threatened by the massive White Rock Lake wildfire, although residents remain under an alert and "must remain ready to leave their homes again on short notice if the fire situation changes," the regional authority said in a notice.

A picture of the White Rock Lake fire, taken by Monte Lake resident Stephanie Gamache on Thursday. (Submitted by Stephanie Gamache)

Wildfire smoke has worsened air quality to dangerous levels in many B.C. communities throughout this year's fire season. Currently, the worst-hit community is Logan Lake, 40 kilometres southwest of Kamloops — which reached nine times the World Health Organization's maximum exposure amount on Tuesday, but was an improvement from a week ago when it was 20 times above that guideline. It is affected by the 367-square kilometre Tremont Creek wildfire, which authorities have declared out of control.

Also suffering from dangerous levels of wildfire smoke on Tuesday was Lumby, 20 kilometres east of Vernon, which exceeded the WHO guideline by six times. Kamloops also faced air pollution four times above the WHO's healthy exposure limit.

Parts of the city of Vernon itself remained under evacuation alert due to a massive nearby wildfire.

The B.C. Wildfire Service says the White Rock Lake fire remains out of control and evacuation orders continue for the fire-damaged communities of Monte Lake and Westwold.

However, crews calmed part of the southeast flank of the blaze, closest to Okanagan Lake, while growth elsewhere stalled after a damp weekend.

But there's concern another hot spell due to arrive Wednesday will ramp up the fire danger.

Environment Canada issued special weather statements covering inland sections of the north and central coasts, parts of Vancouver Island, the inner south coast and southern Interior, calling for heat in the mid- to high-30s, with little overnight relief until the weekend.


Anyone placed under an evacuation order should leave the area immediately. 

Evacuation centres have been set up throughout the province to assist anyone evacuating from a community under threat from a wildfire. To find the centre closest to you, visit the Emergency Management B.C. website.

Evacuees are encouraged to register with Emergency Support Services online, whether or not they access services at an evacuation centre.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David P. Ball

Journalist

David P. Ball is a multimedia journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. He has previously reported for the Toronto Star, Agence France-Presse, and The Tyee, and has won awards from the Canadian Association of Journalists and Jack Webster Foundation. You can send story tips or ideas to david.ball@cbc.ca, or contact him on Twitter.

With files from The Canadian Press

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