British Columbia

Some evacuees in B.C.'s Interior to return home this week

After more than a week of waiting, some evacuees from central B.C. may finally learn if their homes are still standing after a wildfire burned through their neighbourhoods.

About 40,000 people have been ordered to flee their communities, officials say

Highway closed by RCMP officers outside of Kamloops. Some residents learned Monday that they will be able to return home. (CBC)

After more than a week of waiting, some evacuees in central B.C. began hearing encouraging news about their properties on Monday.

At a meeting in Kamloops on Monday night, officials told evacuees that if they live in 150 Mile House, 108 Mile Ranch or the part of 103 Mile House east of Highway 97, and they haven't heard from officials, their properties are currently unharmed.

"We have other areas that we have challenges and we're inventorying those and we will endeavour to call those folks within this week to tell them of their losses," said Al Richmond, Chair of the Cariboo Regional District. 

Wildfires have not entered into 100 Mile House, and officials are evaluating the possibility of allowing people from that community and the surrounding area to return home.

"We're actively working on re-entry plans for our residents. We're a ways off telling them when they'll be able to come home, but currently the fire situation has calmed down," said Richmond.

Meanwhile, some of those who were ordered out of their homes in Lake Country, north of Kelowna, on Saturday are being allowed to return. Eight homes were destroyed this weekend as a fast-growing grass fire moved through the area.

And the village of Cache Creek — the first municipality put under an evacuation order — will allow residents to return home on Tuesday. 

Firefighters muster in Big Lake, northeast of Williams Lake, as wildfires continue to spread through the region. (Nichola G./Instagram)

But in Williams Lake, the largest of the communities under evacuation order, there is still no word on when residents can return home.

"There is no way to know when the order will be lifted. And that's the number one question that people are asking me as I'm walking around town," said Williams Lake councillor Craig Smith.

"I have no idea and neither does anyone in the [Emergency Centre]. Everything is dependent on how quickly we can deal with the fires."

Smoky skies

Smoky skies greeted central B.C. on Monday morning as firefighters began another week trying to bring wildfires across the region under control.

There's no rain in the forecast until Wednesday night at the earliest, and Environment Canada is cautioning people throughout the Interior and as far east as Saskatchewan about poor air quality due to wildfire smoke.

If rain falls as expected on Thursday, however, it could be as part of a thunderstorm in some parts of the province, potentially bringing lightning that could spark more fires.

Although temperatures were relatively cool on Monday, with highs in the low 20s for the hard-hit cities of Williams Lake, Quesnel and 100 Mile House, the forecast calls for warming weather over the next few days. By Wednesday, temperatures could return to the high 20s.

The sun rises through smoky skies above the Sandman Centre in Kamloops, which is serving as a wildfire evacuee reception centre, on Monday. (Denis Dossmann/CBC )

'We're certainly seeing progress'

After strong winds whipped up the flames and caused many of the wildfires to spread aggressively on Saturday, crews were able to make headway during Sunday's calmer conditions, according to B.C. Wildfire Service information officer Kevin Skrepnek.

"We're certainly seeing progress out there, despite the challenges. It's hard progress to quantify," he said.

Though the forecast calls for continuing dry conditions, there are some positives in the outlook for the next few days.

"I don't think we're going to see the wind to the extent of what we saw on Saturday," Skrepnek said. "Of course, the damage has been done in many cases."

Despite promising conditions in the near future, he said those affected by the fires should practice patience.

"We want people to be prepared that this is going to be a long-term situation," Skrepnek said.

"No one is more affected than the people who have been displaced. There's a Herculean effort going to support those people.... But the last thing we want to do is bring people back into their homes, only to order them to leave again."

Fires continue to grow

Fifteen of the 156 active fires burning through B.C. were threatening communities by Monday. The largest fire, near Ashcroft, had ballooned to 52,600 hectares in size.

The entire city of Williams Lake was evacuated on Saturday, but about 90 people have yet to leave, according to Mayor Walt Cobb.

A few residents have stuck around to help fight the fires closing in on the outskirts.

Tim Menning runs a timber company in town, and said he's been getting by on bologna sandwiches for the past few days as he helps with the battle.

"It's virtually every logging outfit that has stayed behind ... to help fight the fires," Menning said.

There have been some tough days, with winds whipping up the flames and little progress made in the battle, but conditions were better on Sunday.

"We had a good day yesterday, and today is shaping up OK," Menning said.

According to officials from the wildfire service, none of the blazes circling Williams Lake have managed to reach structures in the city of approximately 10,000 people.

Children play at the Kamloops reception centre for wildfire evacuees. (Lien Yeung/CBC )

Volunteers feeling worn down

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly how many people have fled their homes, but officials estimate that about 40,000 people have received evacuation orders as the wildfires continue to spread, and another 20,000 are on evacuation alert. Compare that to 2003, B.C.'s worst wildfire season in recent history, when 50,000 were ordered out of their homes.

With news of new evacuation orders and alerts coming in virtually nonstop for the last week and a half, there are signs of fatigue among those trying to help evacuees.

At the Kamloops evacuation reception centre on Sunday afternoon, volunteer Joel Gaudet was feeling worn out after working through the night.

"I've taken a couple of breaks," he said.

"We're still screaming for people to help out here, so I'm not planning on leaving anytime soon."

About 3,000 staff from the B.C. Wildfire Service are helping in the efforts to fight the wildfires, with help from 450 people who have flown in from other provinces. Another 50 specialists and support staff are expected to arrive from Australia on Wednesday.

With files from The Canadian Press and Farrah Merali