British Columbia

Forced out by B.C. wildfires, evacuees frustrated by rules preventing return to rescue pets and valuables

Some B.C. fire evacuees are frustrated they aren’t being allowed to return to their homes to rescue personal belongings, while others are defying the leave order and staying put as wildfires grow.

Some residents defying evacuation orders; district says it's overwhelmed by residents' requests to return

Not allowed to return home via ferry, a homeowner on the southside of Franç​ois Lake uses a motor boat to re-enter an area under evacuation order Tuesday night. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Some people forced out of their homes by wildfires in northern B.C. are frustrated they aren't being allowed to rescue pets and personal belongings or go in to help family members who have chosen to stay behind.

More than 3,000 people are affected by evacuation orders across the province. Among them are hundreds of residents of the Bulkley-Nechako Regional District, which is facing some of the largest wildfires this year.

The Nadina, Verdun and Island Lake wildfires in particular have forced the evacuation of an area known as Southside, which is accessible by ferry across Francois Lake, about 20 kilometres away from the community of Burns Lake.

Though the Nadina, Verdun and Island Lake wildfires are still being treated as separate by the B.C Wildfire Service, the evacuation orders have now overlapped to cover an area more than 100 kilometres long. (Bulkley-Nechako Regional District)

Barred from returning

Southside resident Gerald Noth was taking part in wildfire suppression training in Burns Lake on Tuesday when the order went into effect, preventing him from getting back home.

Gerald Noth was taking fire suppression training when his home was placed under evacuation order. Unable to return home, he has no clothes or supplies and is concerned about his pets. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

"I'm stuck over here with no clothes … I have a place with huskies, cats and stuff stuck in my house," he said.

People are only allowed to take the ferry to Southside if they have received special permission from the regional district, something Shirley Wilson has been trying to get since her home was placed under evacuation order last week.

In addition to equipment for her security job at remote work sites, she wants to collect photographs of her recently deceased son.

"I don't want to lose his photographs, because that's all I have of him," she said. "The photos and the memories of him."

Shirley Wilson believes she should be allowed to return to her home to retrieve belongings, including photographs of her recently deceased son. 'It’s a human rights issue.' (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Defying orders

Regional district board chair Bill Miller said his staff is receiving dozens of requests to enter evacuation zones, making it difficult to keep up.

He said it would be helpful if the province were to offer extra resources to help manage requests, as was recommended by an independent report released earlier this year.

That report, which examined the province's handling of floods and wildfires in 2017, noted that preventing people from entering their communities added to confusion and stress and, in some cases, separated families.

It also was the source of political flare-ups when members of the Tl'etinqox First Nation community west of Williams Lake announced they wouldn't follow evacuation orders, leading to a clash with RCMP.

It prompted officials to warn that defying evacuation orders poses a risk not just to those staying behind, but to officials who have to work around them while dealing with wildfires.

Turned away

Still, many people are ignoring the evacuation orders for now, with some blaming strict rules preventing entry into the evacuation zone.

Southside resident Pam Dyck was preparing to leave Tuesday night when her son, who was going to help her pack up, was turned away at the ferry with his trailer on the other side of Franç​ois Lake.

She then decided to stay with her pets and personal items.

"I don't think it's really fair," she said of the decision by authorities to turn her son away. "When you're a senior [like me] you need the help of your family and your friends."

Cheslatta Carrier Nation Chief Corrina Leween said it’s emotional to have to leave reserve land, but believes safety during wildfires is paramount. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Speaking Wednesday, Cheslatta Carrier Nation Chief Corrina Leween said that approximately half of her nation's 174 on-reserve members had decided to stay in the evacuation zone.

"A lot are farmers, have gardens and homes that they built by hand," she said.

Still, even though she said she understood the desire to stay, Leween urged anyone still in the evacuation zone to make safety their priority.

"I've watched that fire for two weeks now," she said. "I've seen it change from calm to raging… I don't recommend that anybody goes back into it."

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