British Columbia

11 emergency centres across B.C. scramble to help 36,600 wildfire evacuees

'I have to commend everyone for their patience and their courage in the evacuation,' says William Lake Mayor Walt Cobb about thousands who fled as flames closed in on the city Saturday.

Early start to 2017 fire season means there will be risk for some time to come, transportation minister says

Kamloops resident Elmer King said it was 'overwhelming' seeing the thousands of wildfire evacuees and felt like he needed to help. He says he hugged more than 100 people in the one day he stayed outside the reception centre. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

An estimated 36,600 people have been evacuated from their homes in B.C. as of Sunday afternoon, said Minister of Transportation Todd Stone, as wildfires continued to ravage the Interior.

Thousands of Williams Lake, B.C., residents and others were lined up Saturday night and Sunday morning in Kamloops seeking aid after fleeing wildfires. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

"The uncertainty that these folks feel ... all British Columbians are with you — and, in fact, all Canadians are with you as we go through this very difficult time," Stone said.

"The resilience of British Columbia is very much showcased by the calm and collected courage of those evacuating and those responding to the fires."

The number of evacuees was boosted by exhausted Williams Lake residents who arrived Sunday in Kamloops after an evacuation order forced them to navigate traffic-choked highways for hours.

There are now 11 emergency reception centres across B.C. including in Surrey, Chilliwack and Merritt.

Hundreds of evacuees from B.C.'s wildfires line up at an emergency centre in Kamloops. 0:45

"We still have bills and mortgages to pay."

The farthest of those evacuation centres is in Surrey, where over 700 people have registered at the Cloverdale Arena relief centre. 

"We're starting to worry about  ... our financial situation. We still have bills and mortgages to pay," said Alicia Rogel, who was evacuated from her home in 150 Mile House over a week ago. 

While many have registered in Surrey, the 100 beds set up for evacuees haven't yet been used.

"No one has taken us up  ... even for rest and respite," said Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, who added that the space would continue to support evacuees with food and supplies for as long as needed.

Largest group of evacuees from Williams Lake

About 24,000 people in Williams Lake and its surrounding areas were affected by Saturday evening's evacuation order, but officials say about 60 per cent of residents left on their own accord before the order was given.

A dog sits in a cage in an area in Kamloops set aside for the animals of people who had to flee wildfires in B.C.'s Interior. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

Ruth Downes, carrying a single suitcase as she lined up for assistance at the Thompson-Nicola Regional District's evacuation centre in Kamloops Sunday morning, says she rode on a school bus all night after mustering with her neighbours.

"The roads were packed, but everyone has been very helpful," she said. "Everyone in the city was leaving. We moved very slowly but carefully."

School buses from Williams Lake and the surrounding area arrived Saturday night and early Sunday morning in Kamloops. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Downes said she couldn't see any flames and didn't believe the city was in jeopardy from the White Lake wildfire, which has been burning to the city's west for days, but she said the smoke in the air was unbearable.

"As we left, the smoke was billowing in behind us — yikes! It was a little intimidating," she said.

Officials say the fire has now crossed the Fraser River and is seven to 10 kilometres north of the city. There are 120 municipal firefighters on guard should the wildfire breach city limits.

"The winds have changed and they are blowing in the opposite direction, so hopefully they will blow the fire back upon itself," said Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb late Sunday night.

Evacuation slow but safe

Cariboo regional district chair Al Richmond says the journey from Williams Lake to Kamloops, which normally takes about two hours, could have taken nine for some people as between 7,000 and 8,000 left town Saturday night.

"The convoy was moving slowly, but the key is they were moving safely," Richmond said. "There's no immediate danger, as far as we know, to the City of Williams Lake. Our main concern was getting people out safely last night before other access to the south got cut off."

He says officials and police are looking for people still in town, and the RCMP can compel people to leave or even arrest them.

Cobb says he estimates there are some stragglers, but that they will leave.

An estimated 36,000 to 37,000 people evacuated from their homes in B.C. as of Sunday afternoon, as wildfires continue to ravage the Interior 2:09

He said there are still up to 2,000 people in Williams Lake — mostly RCMP, firefighters and some business owners who stayed behind to help emergency workers.

"And actually we've had some of the restaurants that took the bull by the horns and decided not to evacuate because they felt they had to be here as long as they had food to provide services for the people that are here, the RCMP and the firefighters," said Cobb.

"So I really appreciate their dedication."

Big Lake, northeast of Williams Lake, is also under the evacuation order issued Saturday. (Nichola G./Instagram)

Richmond says anyone in need of emergency information can check out the CRD's emergency information Facebook page or call 1-800-585-9559.

Stone says 5,100 B.C. households have registered for support through the Red Cross, and 83 per cent of them have received their $600 in benefits as of Sunday.

Helicopter crashed Saturday

Minister of Forests John Rustad said there are about 2,900 firefighters and 203 aircraft attacking the fires burning up B.C.'s forests.

Rustad said one helicopter crashed while fighting a fire in the Chilcotin region Saturday. He said the pilot, the sole occupant of the helicopter, was injured but in stable condition.

Officials say it was an EC-130 helicopter (example pictured) which crashed Saturday. They say the aircraft was operated by contractor J.B. Air. Transport Canada is not investigating. (Sudpoth Sirirattanasakul/Shutterstock)

He said B.C. has spent over $80 million on forest fires this season, "but certainly we'll spend whatever it takes."

Chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek said 162 fires are currently active in B.C., and 16 new ones started Saturday.

Skrepnek said an estimated 131,000 hectares of B.C. forest have been burned so far in 2017 — about one-quarter of the area of Prince Edward Island.

Most evacuees since 2003

Stone says the early start to the 2017 fire season means there will be risk for some time to come and vigilance will be required.

Wildfire evacuees from Williams Lake wait in line for aid in Kamloops with their belongings. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

"You may not have the benefit of advance notice," he said.

"Certainly if you have loved ones or friends and you can go somewhere, I would highly recommend the Lower Mainland at this point and just get out of the Interior if you can," he said on Sunday.

Across B.C., there are 49 evacuation orders and 23 evacuation alerts. Turner said the last time there were so many evacuees in B.C. was the 2003 fire season, when about 50,000 were forced from their homes.

"But [2017] is in many ways a more complicated response because of the geographic scope ... and we're at the beginning of the fire season," he said.

With files from Tina Lovgreen, Jon Hernandez and CBC Radio One's North By Northwest