British Columbia

'Any shift in the weather is going to have consequences': B.C. wildfires could get worse, officials warn

Out-of-control wildfires that started on Friday have forced 14,000 people from their homes in B.C. The weather is a major concern heading into Wednesday, but officials in Williams Lake say they have some promising news.

Over 14,000 people already displaced, 200-plus fires continue to burn across the province

An RCMP officer walks on a Williams Lake road as wildfires fill the sky with smoke (Mike Zimmer/CBC)

Officials in the largest B.C. community facing an evacuation alert because of the over 200 wildfires burning up the province found reason for optimism as Tuesday drew to a close.

Williams Lake chief administrative officer Milo MacDonald says the latest forecasts indicate the winds predicted for the area, which could have whipped up nearby fires, may not be as strong as thought.

"The crews had the blessing of Mother Nature dealing the cards for us," said Cariboo Regional district chair Al Richmond. "The forecast has made us slightly more optimistic, but still vigilant and concerned."

Mary Symes is one of the evacuees from Cache Creek, B.C. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

Richmond says fire crews made good progress containing the wildfire which threaten Williams Lake. The city has approximately 10,500 people, who have been on evacuation alert since Monday, ready to flee north to Prince George of the flames should get too close.

Kevin Skrepnek, the province's chief wildfire information officer, added the lightning predicted for the Cariboo region for Wednesday might not come until Thursday, when accompanying rain will reduce the risk.

MacDonald says in Williams Lake, some people have already left on their own accord, leaving many businesses closed.

Earlier on Tuesday, should the worst come to pass, officials said Prince George could accept 8,000 evacuees from Williams Lake and the surrounding areas.

However, Richmond says he has been told the town could "ramp up" to accept up to 20,000, and MacDonald says many people have private options for housing in other communities.

Over 34,000 people in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region alone are under evacuation alert or order as of Tuesday.

"That's a lot of people," Richmond said. "We're a resource community, but our strongest resource is our people. They're very resilient."

Still concerns

Elsewhere, shifting weather patterns are raising concerns as firefighters continue to battle wildfires that have forced thousands to flee their homes.

"We have some concerning weather on the horizon tomorrow," Skrepnek said, noting lightning could start new fires and the wind could spread them farther afield.

"It was that combination on Friday that really brought this situation to a head," he said.

"Any shift in the weather is going to have consequences."

As smoke fills the sky, a sign indicates the fire danger in Williams Lake. (Simon Hergott)

Over 14,000 people have already been forced from their homes, and emergency centres in Prince George, Kelowna and Kamloops are filling up.

Smoke is hindering fire suppression efforts by reducing air quality and visibility across the Interior. The smoke has crossed the Rockies, reaching as far as Edmonton.

Environment Canada has issued air quality advisories for a major swath of B.C. south of Prince George and west of the Fraser Valley. Air quality advisories are also in place for Alberta.

Fires could create weather system

It's not only external weather conditions officials have to be concerned about. CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe said a very intense wildfire can actually create its own weather system called a pyrocumulus or fire cloud.

That's what happened in Fort McMurray, Alta., during the devastating 2016 fire.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we are starting to see this situation with some of the fires across B.C.," she said.

WATCH: How a wildfire can create its own weather system

The self-perpetuating cycle can make a fire difficult to contain, Wagstaffe said, noting that the smoke and heat of a fire rises up into the atmosphere, allowing oxygen to fill the space below and feed the fire.

The rising air cools and mixes with existing water vapour in the upper atmosphere to create thunderstorms and lightning, which can then ignite new fires.

"There is no rule of thumb for how big a fire has to be before this happens. If the plume of fire is large enough and there's enough moisture in the air, then it will condense into fire clouds," she said.

Current evacuation alerts and orders

A woman picks up donations sent from residents of Fort McMurray, Alta., at an evacuation centre in Kamloops. (Daniel Beauparlant/CBC)

Multiple communities continue to be under evacuation orders and alerts. Officials said the evacuation order on 100 Mile House — one of the largest municipalities affected by the fires — will remain for at least seven more days.

Williams Lake and the surrounding area continues to be under alert, with residents contending with alarmingly high levels of smoke.

Skrepnek said it's important for residents to follow evacuation orders as they are announced.

"Just given the scale of the evacuations, we often see folks who choose to stay behind," he said.

"They're putting their own safety in jeopardy and they're putting the safety of first responders in jeopardy too if that area does come under threat and we know that there are people who have stayed behind."

For the latest evacuation alerts and orders, visit Emergency Info BC.

  • 100 Mile House: An evacuation order for the community was issued Sunday, and will remain in effect for at least another week. The surrounding northern fringe areas and Forest Grove are under evacuation alert as is a large swath to the southwest along Highway 97.
  • Cache Creek: The village of Cache Creek and surrounding properties have been ordered evacuated. Residents are to go to the McArthur Island Sports Lounge in Kamloops. Other areas to the north, east and west are under evacuation alert.
  • Princeton: 350 homes in the Highway 5A area between Cedar Creek Road and Dry Lake have been ordered evacuated. All homes north of Princeton along Highway 5A north to Cedar Creek Road and along Princeton Summerland Road to Shinish Creek Road are under evacuation alert.
  • Little Fort: Properties west and south of Lemieux Creek are under evacuation alert after a previous evacuation order was rescinded. Several properties to the east are also under evacuation alert. North of nearby Dunn Lake, several properties on Dunn Lake Road and Windpass Road have been ordered evacuated.
  • Clearwater: Several properties on Dunn Lake Road, Bradshaw Road and McCarthy Creek Road have been ordered evacuated. Several other properties in the District of Clearwater and TNRD Electoral Area A were also on evacuation alert.
  • Williams Lake: The Moore Mountain, Miocene, Wildwood, Fox Mountain, Soda Creek and Lexington Subdivision north of 150 Mile House, have been ordered evacuated. The remainder of the city is under an evacuation alert as is the nearby area of South Lakeside.
  • 150 Mile House: The community and surrounding areas have been ordered evacuated.
  • Alexis Creek: An area north of Highway 20 between Alexis Creek and the Fraser River has been ordered evacuated. That order was later expanded to reach areas as far west as Chilcotin Lake and almost as far north as Quesnel.
  • Loon Lake: The community and surrounding properties are under an evacuation alert.
  • Quesnel: Properties near Dragon Mountain are under an evacuation alert.
  • Naltesby Lake: An area surrounding the lake, southwest of Prince George, is under evacuation alert.
  • Fort Fraser: An area north of the community between Fraser Lake and the Stuart River is under evacuation alert.
  • Kleena Kleene: An evacuation order was issued for the community and surrounding areas.
  • Bella Coola: A remote fire 52 kilometres east of the community, which is in the Coastal Fire Centre, has caused the evacuation of five homes.
  • Tatelkuz Lake: An evacuation alert is in effect for the area near this lake south of Fort Fraser.
  • Big Bend Creek: An evacuation alert is in effect for this area west of Finger-Tatuk Provincial Park.

Highway closures

For the latest road closures and conditions, visit DriveBC.

  • Highway 1: Closed from Ashcroft to Cache Creek; and both directions east and west out of Cache Creek; and in the westbound lane to Savona.
  • Highway 5A: Closed in both directions at junction with Highway 3 in Princeton and north of Princeton at Allison Lake Provincial Park.
  • Highway 20: Closed to westbound traffic at the Chilcotin Bridge, 25 km west of Williams Lake.
  • Highway 24: Closed to westbound traffic heading to 100 Mile House from the junction with Horse Lake Road.
  • Highway 97: Closed from junction of Highway 1 in Cache Creek to Clinton, and at the Canim Hendrix intersection to the Timothy Lake Road junction. Open to northbound traffic from Williams Lake and closed to southbound traffic from 15 kilometres south of Quesnel.
  • Highway 99: Closed from Hat Creek Junction to Highway 97.
  • Likely Road: Closed from 150 Mile House to junction with Horsefly Road.
A roadblock prevents people from going into Cache Creek. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

Evacuees urged to register

Bob Turner, with Emergency Management B.C., said that whether a person leaves a fire-threatened community by order or by choice, it's important to register with the Red Cross in the community they go to.

"Most people who have evacuated have not yet registered," he said.

"Registering will allow family and friends to know the whereabouts of loved ones and that they are safe. It also allows the Canadian Red Cross to contact people directly as more information and assistance becomes available."

Turner said the Red Cross's registration website and phone line experienced problems yesterday that prevented some people from registering. He said those problems have been resolved and evacuees can register online or by calling 1-800-863-6582.

More resources coming to B.C.

Another wave of firefighters, support staff and aircraft from other provinces arrived in B.C. on Tuesday.

A total of 310 personnel from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick are coming this week. That number also includes personnel from Parks Canada.

Over 200 contracted aircraft — helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft — are also joining the fight. Forest industry crews are also part of the effort.

Search and rescue personnel, including six from Vancouver, are heading to affected areas.

Skrepnek said that so far, the 2017 forest fire season has cost the government $53.5 million in firefighting costs.

A wildfire burns on a mountain in the distance east of Cache Creek behind a house in Boston Flats, B.C., in the early morning hours of Monday July 10. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

'Really critical' days for weather

CBC weather presenter Amy Bell said the weather outlook for most fire-ravaged areas is not good.

A low-pressure system through northern B.C. and the central Interior on Wednesday could bring rain west of Prince George, but also bring thunder and lightning to the Cariboo and Chilcotin.

Bell said that system will be followed by a second one Thursday. After that things should "calm down," but temperatures will increase for the weekend.

"So, tonight and tomorrow are really critical," she said.

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