British Columbia

Entire communities ready to evacuate at a moment's notice as B.C. wildfires rage

More than 1,500 properties in B.C. remain under evacuation order due to wildfires raging nearby, with thousands more on standby to leave their homes at a moment's notice.

100 Mile House, Ashcroft and Cache Creek remain on evacuation alert

A wildfire burns near Ashcroft B.C. on July 15, 2021. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

More than 1,500 properties in B.C. remained under evacuation order Thursday due to wildfires raging nearby, with thousands more on standby to leave their homes at a moment's notice.

The growing number of blazes prompted interior health authorities to evacuate several long-term care homes in the 100 Mile House and Ashcroft areas, while others are preparing to evacuate.

Many communities under evacuation alert this week were among those hardest hit by the devastating wildfires in 2017. Two mayors say the scenario this year has brought back memories of that season four years ago, when thousands had to suddenly flee their homes after shifting winds pushed fires closer.

"We've been through this before, so everybody's working together," said Mitch Campsall, mayor of 100 Mile House.

Some of the largest evacuation orders in B.C. cover roughly 1,480 properties surrounding 100 Mile House, with residents in the Canim Lake and Lone Butte areas warned of "immediate danger'' from wildfires. 

More than 3,000 properties in the nearby Horse Lake area are under evacuation alerts. The District of 100 Mile House, roughly 200 kilometres north of Kamloops, is in the same boat.

Campsall spoke to CBC News by phone on Thursday from his post at a checkpoint on Highway 97C. The road has been shut down south of 100 Mile House as a nearby fire threatens to jump the highway.

The mayor said he's watching the roads closely after the wildfires of 2017.

"That year, we were down to one road and were almost locked in, so we're keeping a good eye on it [this year]," Campsall said.

Two additional routes in and out of 100 Mile House are still open, should an evacuation become necessary.

The fires around 100 Mile House prompted the health authority to expand its evacuation response, including continuing to cancel vaccination clinics and evacuating seniors in its care homes.

A fire known as the Brenda Creek wildfire is seen burning south of Highway 97C between Kelowna and Merritt, B.C., on Wednesday. (Chloé Dioré de Périgny/Radio-Canada)

Erin Bull, a fire information officer with the BC Wildfire Service, says some progress has been made against the Canim Lake fire, burning just north of 100 Mile House, but it's a tough situation for residents to find themselves in.

"It's very difficult for people to have to leave their homes, especially in a tactical evacuation, when it's at a moment's notice,'' she said.

"There is a lot of fire on the landscape across the region,'' she continued, adding that similar conditions were seen in 2017.

"At the time these fires started ... we were all aware we were experiencing unseasonably warm conditions, so that of course was a huge contribution to all the wildfires in the region.''

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth acknowledged residents' stress is building.

"I know tensions for many are high, given the widespread, damaging fire seasons of recent years," he said in a written statement.

"I want to assure British Columbians that we are deploying all necessary and available personnel and equipment to respond to wildfires across the province. The federal government and the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre are providing firefighting personnel, aircraft support and other assets."

The Brenda Creek wildfire burns south of the Okanagan Connector (Highway 97C) , about 40 kilometres from West Kelowna, B.C., on Wednesday. (CBC Radio-Canada)

Call for provincial state of emergency

Merlin Blackwell, the mayor of Clearwater, B.C., says the provincial government should declare a provincewide state of emergency because more wildfires could happen elsewhere. 

"We have a two-week forecast of hot weather coming towards us — there's no relief in sight for rain for most of the province," Blackwell said. "Almost hourly we see another evacuation alert or order going into effect — it's time to get moving on this." 

The chair of the Cariboo Regional District agrees.

A state of emergency "gives us access to more support, post wildfire season," Margo Wagner said Thursday to Shelley Joyce, the host of CBC's Daybreak Kamloops. "We know from 2017 it's a very long recovery period, and I can tell you this one's going to be no different, because we have a lot of people that are expressing higher stress, higher triggers from the fires that we have in the area." 

'Fires are running rampant'

Meanwhile, evacuation orders for areas closer to the City of Kamloops are still in effect. The orders cover more than 180 properties around the city, including areas near Savona and Copper Creek.

The fire responsible, known as the Sparks Lake fire, is roughly 402 square kilometres. There have been reports of buildings damaged or destroyed by the flames, but the Thompson-Nicola Regional District has not been able to verify the damage.

On Thursday afternoon, the B.C. Wildfire Services declared that three previously burning fires near Young Lake, which had triggered an evacuation alert, "have now merged" to grow to a combined 680 hectares and is "classified as out of control," the service said in a tweet Thursday. Now, residents affected have been issued an evacuation order for Electoral Areas E, J and O.

And a new fire was declared "out of control" just 33 kilometres southeast of the city of Merritt around 6 p.m. Thursday, according to the B.C. Wildfire Service in a tweet.

On Thursday, the Thompson-Nicola Regional District passed a unanimous vote calling on the provincial government to declare a state of emergency, the latest of many such calls this wildfire season. 

"It is vitally important to those regions where fires are running rampant, that we should have available opportunity to try to combat them," district chair Ken Gillis told CBC News. "I hope they'll heed our request."

Villages near Kamloops on alert

Fire activity is also affecting entire communities directly south of the Cariboo region. 

The villages of Ashcroft and Cache Creek are under evacuation alert, as is the Ashcroft Indian Band reserve. Strong winds fanned a wildfire near Barnes Lake on Wednesday, pushing it to 78 square kilometres in size.

"Yesterday, unfortunately, the fire just spiralled out of control," said Ashcroft Mayor Barbara Roden.

"We're just doing [the alert] as a precautionary measure. We certainly hope that this is as far as it goes, but we want people to stay informed and be able to make decisions ... and take some preparatory steps," she said.

The village of Ashcroft was "ground zero" for one of the largest wildfires in B.C.'s history in 2017. The monstrous Elephant Hill fire began just south of the community, destroyed more than 120 homes and forced thousands of people to flee their communities. 

Roden said the village adjusted its emergency plans after that fire knocked out power and communications with little warning. 

"This year, we actually took the step of printing off 800 copies of the [evacuation alert] notice and staff and crews from the village went door to door to 800 homes in Ashcroft," she said.

"All of the of people here very vividly remember 2017," she continued. "We definitely did learn ... sadly, we now have an opportunity to put that into practice."

Residents of 50 properties to the southeast of Ashcroft were ordered to leave their homes Wednesday evening because of the same fire near Barnes Creek. People living on a further 117 properties near Young Lake were also told to leave for a safer area.

Nearly 200 properties in the Barnes Lake area east of Kamloops are on alert as of Wednesday.

The Camsell Lake fire is seen from an evacuee's vehicle on Tuesday. (Supplied by Ruby Prince)

Residents of 41 properties in the Okanagan, west of Peachland, were ordered out before dawn Thursday as the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen said a new fire has threatened safety.

To the north, in the Bulkley-Nechako Regional District, another evacuation order remains in effect near Fort St. James because of a wildfire near Camsell Lake. It includes Yekooche First Nation reserves and portions of Rubyrock Lake Provincial Park and Sutherland River Park.

A new evacuation order was issued Thursday night by the regional district and Takla Nation in relation to the Mount Porter wildfire, covering the areas of Wolverine Lakes, Manson Lakes and the Omineca Mining Access Road.

The regional district has also issued an evacuation order in relation to the Cutoff Creek wildfire burning north of Big Bend Arm.

Air quality in the region in parts of the Interior and around Williams Lake continues to be poor on Thursday. It is worst in Kamloops, where it is rated as "very high" — meaning strenuous activity outdoors should be avoided.

The only highway through B.C.'s Chilcotin region — Highway 20 — remains closed near Anahim Lake.

The fire, known as the Big Stick Lake fire, jumped the highway on Tuesday afternoon, according to the Ulkatcho First Nation. A Canadian Forces helicopter was dispatched to Anahim Lake Airport on Wednesday to help shuttle evacuees out of the area.

North of Lytton, in the Fraser Canyon, an order is in place for 17 properties in the Gladwin Mobile Home Park and Jade Springs area, east of the village, because of the Lytton Creek wildfire.

Anyone placed under an evacuation order must 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.

With files from CBC's Eva Uguen-Csenge, Daybreak Kamloops and The Canadian Press

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