British Columbia

Thousands free to return home as some B.C. wildfire evacuation orders downgraded

As thousands of evacuees got the OK to return home Saturday, federal public safety Min. Ralph Goodale said Ottawa will match financial aid contributions to the Canadian Red Cross.

Federal government announced bolstered financial aid amid downgraded orders

Some residents will be going home Saturday as evacuation orders in B.C.'s Cariboo region begin to be downgraded to alerts. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Thousands of evacuees from Princeton, 100 Mile House and surrounding areas in British Columbia are free to go home after evacuation orders were downgraded to alerts on Sunday.

For some, it's been more than two weeks since they were ordered to leave.

The Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen issued the updated alert for Princeton at 10:15 a.m. PT, along with a fresh map of affected areas. 

The B.C. Wildfire Service said the 3,300-hectare wildfire that forced Princeton residents out is now 100 per cent contained.

The evacuation order for 100 Mile House and surrounding areas — including 103 Mile, 105 Mile, 108 Mile and most of Lac la Hache — was changed to an alert just after 2 p.m. PT.

Al Richmond, with the Cariboo Regional District, said the fire in that area was 65 per cent contained and still being fought by firefighters.

Matched financial aid coming

Shortly after the downgrades, the federal government announced it would be matching B.C.'s contributions to the Canadian Red Cross for financial help. 

The funding will be distributed through the aid organization for long-term recovery efforts and infrastructure projects. 

The province is already distributing payments to evacuees to help them with short-term needs. Each household is eligible for up to three payments of $600 and an additional $300 upon returning home, which is also being distributed through the Red Cross.

The amount of money B.C. gives to the Canadian Red Cross will be dependant on how many households are evacuated during the wildfire season.

Federal minister of public safety Ralph Goodale announced Saturday that Ottawa will match that amount.

B.C. has been in a state of emergency since July 7. The federal government announced it would be stepping in to help fight the fires three days later, sending Canadian Forces to assist in the effort. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to visit B.C. in coming days.

Evacuees warned to return with caution

Residents heading back to the Princeton and 100 Mile House areas will still need to be ready to leave again at a moment's notice if conditions worsen.

The Cariboo Regional District said people should be aware that air quality is still poor. Small children, the elderly and those with respiratory issues should keep that in mind before going home.

It also advised that grocery, healthcare and gas services have been affected by the fires. Evacuees should return home with a full tank of gas, as well as enough food, water and prescription medication for at least a week.

Princeton Mayor Frank Armitage said locals are feeling a sense of "guarded relief."

"After two weeks, people are feeling the strain," he said. "I commend them for trying to be as civil as they can."

Princeton, a town of about 2,800 people, is surrounded by dry, wooded, grassy landscape. Armitage said he and the rest of the community will be watching the weather closely as they return, given that wind played such a part in whipping up the fire in the first place.

"That's what we pray won't occur," he said. "It's like pouring kerosene on a fire."

Many of the trees in the Princeton area were already dead from pine beetle infestation when wildfire broke out. (Pete Scobie/CBC)

Highway 5A has been partly reopened to allow returning evacuees to get back into the Okanagan town. They'll need a pass from the regional district to get through, which can be obtained at the Princeton ESS Reception Centre.

The roadway is expected to fully reopen on Monday.

An evacuation order is still in effect for 17 homes along the southern end of Summers Creek Road because of unstable rock slopes and the potential for falling trees.

Further north, an evacuation order for the Tzenzaicut Lake area — west of Quesnel — was downgraded to an alert just before 9:30 a.m. PT.

Return for Williams Lake

Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb suggested Friday night that some evacuees could be allowed to go back home next week — but only if roads reopen and calm weather conditions hold.

Al Richmond with the Cariboo Regional District said officials are preparing pharmacies, medical facilities and grocery stores for residents' return, whenever that may be.

He said it's hard to say just how long evacuation orders will stay in place, noting that wildfire situations can turn for the worse in a matter of hours. 

The city, which has a population of about 10,000, was ordered evacuated a week ago.

Strong winds expected

On Saturday, Navi Saini of the B.C. Wildfire Service said there are currently 161 wildfires burning in the province. Fourteen of those were sparked on Friday and 15 are threatening communities.

She added that 13 of 14 new fires were lightning-caused, which was to be expected given the weather. The other was human-caused.

Environment Canada said lightning and strong winds are expected again on Sunday. Sani said firefighters will focus on saving homes and containing new fires while they're still small.

The province estimates about 43,000 people are still out of their homes. There are still 52 evacuation orders in effect and 39 alerts.

With files from The Canadian Press