British Columbia

Williams Lake, B.C., residents cleared to return home after wildfire forces evacuation

Thousands of people in the Williams Lake, B.C., area have been given the go-ahead to return home Thursday after wildfires forced them to flee.

City of 12,000 residents had been under evacuation order since July 15

Walt Cobb, mayor of Williams Lake, B.C., said that although fire danger still remains, he was happy to welcome the city's residents home after an evacuation order was downgraded to an alert on Thursday. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Thousands of people in the Williams Lake, B.C., area have been given the go-ahead to return home after wildfires forced them to flee.

An evacuation order for the city and some of the surrounding area was downgraded to an evacuation alert Thursday afternoon. Many areas north of the city still remain under evacuation order.

The order had been in place for nearly two weeks after a wildfire moved toward the city on July 15. The province estimates about 11,000 people were forced to leave their homes.

Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb said the alert means anyone who chooses to return home should be prepared to leave again on short notice should the wildfire situation change.

"We know there's still a risk," Cobb said. "But we can't keep people away forever."

Despite the warning, Cobb said he was looking forward to welcoming residents home.

"I couldn't be happier," he said.

He warns the town will remain on evacuation alert until further notice 0:34

Officials repeatedly stated there is still significant fire risk in the area and urged residents to consider their personal situation before deciding to return home.

Cariboo Regional District chair Al Richmond said air quality in the region is still quite poor, and the landscape has been "profoundly affected" by the fire.

Residents of Williams Lake, B.C., will be returning to a very different-looking landscape due to the wildfires that have swept through the area in recent weeks. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Richmond advised anyone returning home to bring basic necessities such as medications with them because services in town are still limited.

RCMP Staff Sgt. Annie Linteau said checkpoints will be in place on Highway 97 to ensure an orderly return to the city, and advised travellers to expect significant delays.

RCMP advise evacuees to check with the Cariboo Regional District as to whether the evacuation order has been lifted in their specific area before returning, as many orders still remain in place.

Nora Varesi and her husband, Joe, were happy to be returning to Williams Lake, B.C., on Thursday. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Nora Varesi and husband Joe were still uncertain what condition their house was in, but being back in town was a huge relief in itself.

"Everything just feels wonderful, to see the city still here," she said. "It just feels so good."

Buses to bring residents home within 48 hours

Dave Dickson, with the city's emergency support services department, said buses will be arranged to bring home residents who left on buses during the initial evacuation.

The Boitanio Mall in Williams Lake will be open at 2 p.m. Thursday as a resiliency centre for returning evacuees.

Despite the lifting of the Williams Lake order, thousands are still out of their homes around the province.

The B.C. Wildfire Service is reporting 21 wildfires of note still burning in the province. An evacuation order was issued Wednesday night for Monte Lake, east of Kamloops.

Officials are expecting a continued risk of lightning in the Interior on Thursday and continuing through Friday, which could spark further blazes.

With files from Tina Lovgreen and Raffy Boudjikanian.