British Columbia

'A strong car and lots of gas in the garage': B.C. residents prepare for the worst as wildfire threat grows

As fires surrounded three sides of Cache Creek, most of the town's 1,000 or so residents heeded the evacuation order signed Friday afternoon by Mayor John Ranta.

Throughout the Interior, communities are hoping to avoid catastrophe through precautionary evacuations

A road into Cache Creek, B.C., where about 1,000 people live. The entire community was placed under an evacuation order on Friday. (twitchlouise/Instagram)

As fires surrounded three sides of Cache Creek, most of the town's 1,000 or so residents heeded the evacuation order signed Friday afternoon by Mayor John Ranta. 

But Ranta himself did not. 

"I'm here because I'm sort of a go-down-with-the-ship type of personality," said Ranta at the end of day when around 140 wildfires were burning throughout British Columbia. 

"If I felt threatened, if I felt my life was in danger, I would be out of here as fast as a McLaren would go." 

While Ranta stays, hundreds of his fellow Cache Creek citizens are taking shelter in Kamloops, including Steve Jansen and his family. 

Steve Jansen is one of the many Cache Creek residents who evacuated the town for Kamloops on Friday. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

"When we got told we had to leave, we loaded up some important papers and stuff in the trailer, hooked it up, and we were gone," he said. 

Ironically, Jansen's daughter was forced to go to Cache Creek on Friday morning after an evacuation order in 108 Mile Ranch, 125 kilometres to the north.

This man said he tried to enter Cache Creek on Friday to pick up his brother and animals, but was told there was an evacuation underway and he could not return. (CBC)

"No sooner did she get here than we were told we were being evacuated," said Jansen. 

"We're evacuated, what can you do? We've got two houses there. If they get destroyed, they get destroyed. There's nothing we can do."

'We were primed'

The Jansens were one of thousands of families forced to flee on the worst day for wildfires in British Columbia this decade. 

From Williams Lake to Princeton, a great swath of the B.C. Interior, stretching hundreds of kilometres north to south, was filled with different wildfires on Friday, after days of escalating warnings. 

"Everything was relatively stable. Winds were steady but not aggressive, we certainly weren't having any thunderstorms, so it was kind of a calm air mass. That's what changed today," said Kevin Skrepnek, B.C.'s chief fire information officer. 

Gusty winds blew across the province, "and then we had an unforecasted, intense lightning system … that's what set the stage for today being such an incredibly intense day."

Northwest of 100 Mile House, the 1,500-hectare Gustafsen wildfire was fuelled by thick forest.

Farther south, the 4,000-hectare Ashcroft Reserve wildfire was fuelled by dry grass. 

But throughout the Interior, the basic formula was the same. 

"We were primed after the last two or three weeks of hot and dry weather," said Skrepnek. "This was definitely a pretty extraordinary day."

Learning from Fort Mac

There were some properties destroyed on Friday, including 30 trailers south of Cache Creek and a number of homes with the Ashcroft Indian Band.

"It came down from the mountain. You could see it on the other side, on the north side of Cache Creek," said town resident Owen Johnston. "It's been crazy, for sure."

The fire rating danger in B.C. is high or extreme in virtually all of the southern half of the province. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

But for the most part, Friday avoided worst-case scenarios: Skepnek said there didn't appear to be any injuries stemming from the wildfires, and none of the blazes moved into the centre of communities. 

That may change this weekend. Temperatures remain high, chances of precipitation remain low, and the fate of many properties are at the mercy of wind conditions. 

It's why many evacuation orders are being placed in communities while fires remain several kilometres away. By issuing them now, officials hope to avoid the situation that unfolded in Fort McMurray last summer, where an entire community was forced to flee with only a few hours notice. 

"We recognize that moving significant amount of people in a community on short notice and under duress is quite difficult," said Skrepnek. 

"We're projecting a few days out, saying let's get this done now, let's get people get out of harm's way, and let the chips fall where they may." 

For now, Ranta and thousands throughout the Interior can only wait and hope.

"I hope [I don't have to leave], but that remains to be seen. There's a strong car and lots of gas in the garage," he said.

"The village of Cache Creek has demonstrated its resilience in the past. I'm sure they're demonstrate it now." 

Lightning has sparked several wildfires near Williams Lake, B.C. (Tore_greco/Instagram)

Just as many were leaving Cache Creek, some were trying to return - to retrieve such things as pets and important belongings - only to be told that was not allowed.

Todd Stone, B.C.'s minister responsible for emergency management, declared a provincial state of emergency Friday night as 143 new fires began in one day.

On Saturday, Skrepnek said there were 167 active wildfires.