British Columbia

Fort St. John lifts evacuation alert but hundreds still out of their homes

An evacuation alert for the city of Fort St. John has been lifted as easing winds help reduce risk but hundreds of people living in outlying regions are still ordered out of their homes.

Easing winds have reduced wildfire threat to city but risk remains high in outlying areas

A silo in a field under a light orange sky, presumably from smoke due to wildfires.
Smoky skies continue to cover much of northeastern B.C. (CBC News)

Residents of Fort St. John in northeastern British Columbia breathed a collective sigh of relief after the city lifted its wildfire evacuation alert Wednesday, although more than 1,300 properties in the surrounding area remain under an evacuation order.

The city in northeast British Columbia rescinded its evacuation alert Wednesday just before noon, as a change in wind direction aided firefighters in preventing two out-of-control wildfires from advancing closer.

Fort St. John Mayor Lilia Hansen said after a tense few days people are noticeably relaxing.

"I can tell you from the residents I'm talking to, it's a huge relief,'' she said.

"Whether it's a text message I'm getting, or talking to people downtown, everybody is just grateful that our community and their homes and families are safe.''

Scorched earth
The aftermath of a wildfire that burned through land north of Fort St. John on Monday, May 15. (Toni Chittim)

An update on the city's website says the alert has been lifted for all properties, and its roughly 21,000 residents "can safely resume everyday activities."

An evacuation order for the Cameron River area was also lifted Wednesday afternoon.

Fires still burning

But the region isn't out of the woods yet, as wildfires continue to burn throughout the northeast.

B.C. Wildfire Service information officer Hannah Swift told a briefing on Wednesday that the next 24 to 48 hours would be critical in the efforts to fight the Stoddart Creek fire, which is burning about 25 kilometres away from the city, as well as the smaller Red Creek fire.

The Stoddart Creek blaze spans an estimated 215 square kilometres and Swift said crews were focusing on the southern flank, adding control lines between the fire and populated areas.

The number of personnel deployed to fires near Fort St. John grew Wednesday to nearly 500, and Swift said a lull in dangerous weather had given firefighters a recovery day on Tuesday. Crews were able to conduct a controlled burn to remove just under one square kilometre of "unburned fuel'' in the path of the fires that could have closed down Highway 97 north of the city, the wildfire service said.

But they are watching the forecast closely for another stretch of hotter conditions this week, with potentially problematic winds expected to arrive from the north or southeast.

Hundreds still under evacuation orders in surrounding areas

Meanwhile, hundreds of people are still out of their homes due to evacuation orders in place for more than 1,300 properties in outlying regions, First Nations and rural communities around Fort St. John and the Peace River region.

Evacuation orders remain in place for the Donnie Creek and Tommy Lakes region and a partial order remains in place for the Red Creek and Stoddart Creek wildfires in areas north of Fort St. John. 

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Sonya Aven, who owns Wyld Acres Farm and Arena north of Fort St. John, said she needed to be cautious as out-of-control blazes surround the city.

An evacuation order means people must leave their properties and are not permitted to enter the evacuation zone without permission from authorities.

Hansen says with its own evacuation alert lifted, Fort St. John has opened recreational facilities to support evacuees from the properties in the evacuation zone.

"I think if there's one kindness we can do, it's being there for when people are scared or they're uncertain what their future holds,'' Hansen said. "There are a lot of evacuees with families.''

Campfire ban coming into effect

Officials also warn the wildfire risk in northern B.C. is likely to spread south across the province as hot, dry conditions persist.

An open burning ban is already in place for the Prince George Fire Centre, prohibiting the use of fireworks, open sky lanterns and large burn barrels or piles.

That open burning ban will extend to the entire province on Thursday at noon.

Additionally, campfires will be banned in the Prince George Fire Centre Friday at noon ahead of the long weekend, which will also apply to torches and burn barrels. Camp stoves and barbecues will still be allowed.

The Prince George Fire Centre is an area 10 times the size of Vancouver Island, which includes Prince George, Quesnel, the Robson and Bulkley Valleys, the Peace and Fort Nelson.

With files from CBC News