British Columbia

Williams Lake, B.C.: an anxious city prepares for the worst

"It’s antsy," says the mayor.

While fire isn't expected until Wednesday — if at all — people are already taking precautions

The City of Williams Lake remained under evacuation alert on Tuesday. (CBC News)

"It's antsy."

That's the assessment of Walt Cobb, the mayor of Williams Lake, B.C., as his entire city of 10,500 people sits under an evacuation alert.

"People are concerned, people are worried. With the smoke, you can hardly see more than about three blocks."

For the last five days, as wildfires have raged across B.C.'s Interior, the largest municipality in the Cariboo has been an evacuation centre for those from surrounding areas. 

Now, it's people from Williams Lake lining up to register at the emergency operations building, in case they need to suddenly leave on Wednesday, when the potential fires from the west could encroach on the city.

"The problem is when the winds come up, and they suggest they'll increase on Wednesday, the fire will become more volatile and less predictable," said Al Richmond. 

Extra guard lines being put in place

The Hanceville wildfire is the series of fires, spanning approximately 25 kilometres by 40 kilometres that officials worry might sweep into Williams Lake on Wednesday in a worst-case scenario.

But for now, the winds remain relatively low, allowing firefighters to strengthen their defences. 

"We are getting some containment lines built through heavy equipment," said fire information officer Noelle Kekula.

"We're getting some gains on the guards. If weather permits. we will do some burning operations to try and strengthen those containment lines. We've got a bit more accuracy on the perimeters, and we've got more resources coming in."

The best defence is wet weather — but that appears unlikely. 

"It still continues to be very hot and dry out there," said Keklua, with daytime highs expected to be above 25 C for the forseeable future.

Businesses closed, people evacuating

With the evacuation alert in place, and the health risk from pollutants in the Williams Lake air at 36 on a scale that normally only goes up to 10, many are already leaving town.

"All the banks and many other places have been closed since yesterday [Monday]," said Charlene Harrison, president of the city's Chamber of Commerce, who, herself, was leaving for Prince George when contacted by CBC News. 

"Grocery stores are open and the gas stations are open and some of the restaurants are open ... but the staffing is the difficult part, because some of the areas around Williams Lake have been evacuated for a few days. To even have staff is limiting right now."

Estimating exactly how many people remain in the city is difficult, said Cobb, because for every person that has already left, there could be another person who has arrived from another municipality as an evacuee. 

"And because of the vast recreational [area] around it, it's very difficult to know who is at their recreational property at any certain time," he added. "But we know the numbers swell drastically." 

Evacuees would head to Prince George

If an evacuation order goes into place, people will be routed north on HIghway 97 to Prince George, where officials say the emergency centre is equipped to deal with 8,000 additional people.

Military aircraft will be on standby to help with evacuations in the worst case scenario, said Bob Turner of Emergency Management B.C. 

In the meantime, Cobb hopes people in his city stay calm and regularly check official channels of information to make decisions going forward. 

"With things so up in the air, they're doing their best to keep everyone informed, but sometimes it's hard. They don't get to all the media that are covering it. It's a concern, but they're doing their best," said Cobb.