British Columbia

What you need to know about B.C. wildfires for Aug. 17

Thousands of British Columbians fled their communities after a weekend of high winds fanned dozens of wildfires across B.C., but many have been told they can now return home.

Some evacuation alerts and orders rescinded after overnight rain helps firefighters on Tuesday

A plume of wildfire smoke as seen from the Coquihalla Highway on Sunday. (David P. Ball/CBC)

The latest on the wildfires:

  • A shift in weather has led to several evacuation orders and alerts being rescinded.
  • The Coquihalla Highway has now been reopened between Hope and Merritt after a day-long closure.
  • Tourists are being urged to stay out of communities impacted by wildfires.
  • Rain and cooler temperatures are in the forecast in coming days, which could be helpful for wildfire suppression efforts as long as wind remains calm.
  • For a full list of evacuation orders and alerts, visit Emergency Information B.C.

Thousands of properties were under evacuation order Tuesday after 70 km/h winds fanned dozens of wildfires across B.C. over the weekend.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 86 evacuation orders and about 125 evacuation alerts in place.

However, a shift in the weather led to evacuation orders and alerts being rescinded in some areas, including some entire communities that were evacuated because of the White Rock Lake wildfire.

There are more than 260 active fires throughout the province, 31 of which are considered wildfires of concern. 

The B.C. government has extended the provincial state of emergency through to the end of August, in order to better support those forced to flee their homes due to the wildfires.

The City of Kamloops, near many of the province's biggest wildfires, rescinded an evacuation alert that was in place for the western part of the city on Tuesday morning.

Residents of Cherry Creek were allowed to return home Tuesday evening, as 166 properties were downgraded from an evacuation order to an evacuation alert.

An evacuation order for the Okanagan Indian Band was partially downgraded to an alert on Tuesday afternoon.

Cariboo Regional District board chair Margo Wagner said Tuesday on CBC's Daybreak Kamloops that there are only two properties in the Moose Valley area under evacuation order due to the Flat Lake wildfire near 100 Mile House. 

On Sunday, hundreds fled their homes under smoke-filled orange skies as evacuations were ordered in communities throughout the southern Interior. Others, however, chose to stay behind and try to protect their properties, which officials are condemning after 10 people had to be rescued by firefighters from the White Rock Lake fire on Sunday night.

Central Okanagan Emergency Operations Centre director Brian Reardon said firefighters had to be pulled away from controlling the blaze and put in more danger in order to save people who deliberately ignored evacuation orders.

"I think that [situation] speaks for itself. We really encourage people to gather your things and vacate the area to let the firefighters do their job. It's all about protecting lives," Reardon said.

The White Rock Lake wildfire remains of great concern for firefighters and officials, and is currently 782 square kilometres in size.

On Sunday, firefighters near Killiney Beach on the west side of Okanagan Lake were unable to safely leave the area because of aggressive fire behaviour. Crews were pulled off the fire, and because they could not travel, had to shelter in place until routes became accessible.

Reardon said the district had estimated 70 properties in the Ewings Landing and Killiney areas had been significantly damaged by the fire, with additional properties likely to be affected.

The B.C. Wildfire Service says they are searching for breaches in fire guards previously built to contain the flames following recent fire activity.

Poor visibility due to smoke grounded fixed-wing aircraft on Monday, but helicopters were available to assist with suppression efforts.

A couple looks at the newly ignited Mount Law wildfire, near Peachland and Glenrosa on the west side of Okanagan Lake, from Kelowna's waterfront on Sunday. (Artur Gajda/REUTERS)

The Sparks Lake fire now covers 954 square kilometres, and is the largest wildfire burning in the province.

The Lytton fire complex, Tremont Creek, July Mountain and Mckay Creek fires are also of "significant" concern, according to Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth.

Since April 1, more than 1,500 wildfires have been sparked throughout B.C., scorching 8,250 square kilometres in total.

The 10-year average for the same period is 1,036 fires and about 2,000 square kilometres burned.

Thousands of personnel have joined the wildfire fighting efforts, including 500 people from out of province. Another 200 personnel are expected to arrive from other provinces this week.

Unclear how many properties damaged so far

Even as the Regional District of Central Okanagan confirms upwards of 70 properties have been lost to the White Rock Lake fire, other fires remain dangerously close to houses and residents.

There has also been "limited structural damage'' reported because of the Mount Law wildfire also burning in the district, said Laura Wilson with the district.

"At this time, we still can't confirm that number,'' Wilson said. "We're just working with B.C. Wildfire in order to get into the area to kind of confirm those properties.''

During a press conference Monday, provincial officials said it is unclear how many properties have been damaged or destroyed by wildfire so far this year. 

Tourism discouraged

The Coquihalla Highway, that connects the southern Interior and Lower Mainland, has now reopened from Merritt to Hope after it was closed Sunday night due to wildfires burning nearby.

On Monday, a mudslide triggered the closure of Highway 1 between Lytton and Cache Creek. The 80 kilometre stretch of road remains closed as of Tuesday afternoon.

Officials are urging tourists to stay away from areas impacted by wildfires. 

"Now is not the time to be travelling to the Interior for non-essential travel," Farnworth said during a press conference Monday.

Thompson-Nicola Regional District emergency program co-ordinator Kevin Skrepnek said he is concerned how evacuees will be accommodated when highways are closed. 

"Accommodation's an ongoing issue, especially if we start to see larger communities needing to move all at once," he said Tuesday to Doug Herbert, the guest host of CBC's Daybreak Kamloops

The B.C. Wildfire Service has also asked people to stay away from areas affected by wildfires to ensure access and safety for first responders.

Boaters are also being asked to avoid areas of Okanagan Lake being used by air support.

Cooler temperatures in the forecast

A cold front moved through B.C. Monday, bringing much needed rain and cooler temperatures. 

"While we have a couple of days of cooler weather forecast right now, winds continue to be an issue for our crews, making fire behave very radically and actively," Wilson said.

Ty Boe and his wife Devon were evacuated from West Kelowna's Glenrosa neighbourhood on Sunday due to the Mount Law wildfire. He says he's hoping the fires will move in another direction.

"You never know because it's really dependent on the winds," Boe said Tuesday to Chris Walker, the host of CBC's Daybreak South. "The wind is the big thing."

Later this week dry conditions will return to the province, but temperatures are expected to remain below the seasonal average for the rest of the week.

"We did receive ample precipitation in the Kamloops Fire Centre and some in the southeast," said Erika Berg, a fire information officer with the B.C. Wildfire Service.

Berg said the rain was enough to lessen the activity of some of the most active wildfires in the region overnight on Tuesday. 

However, the B.C. Wildfire Service said the impacts might be short-lived as deeper layers in the ground are still dry.

Environment Canada is predicting more showers in Kamloops and Kelowna this weekend. 

Officials say long-term forecasts show the rest of August will be cooler than it's been all summer. A "mixed-bag" of moisture is expected, though little precipitation is forecast to fall in coming weeks.

Anyone placed under an evacuation order should leave the area immediately. 

Evacuation centres have been set up throughout the province to assist anyone evacuating from a community under threat from a wildfire.

To find the centre closest to you, visit the Emergency Management B.C. website.

Evacuees are encouraged to register with Emergency Support Services online, whether or not they access services at an evacuation centre.


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With files from Brittany Roffel, Akshay Kulkarni, Courtney Dickson and The Canadian Press