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Some B.C. wildfire evacuees to be allowed to return home Tuesday

More than a week after out-of-control wildfires sparked a mass exodus of about 40,000 people in the B.C. Interior, some residents who fled their fire-stricken communities learned they could be going home. 

Residents of the Village of Cache Creek — one of the first communities ordered to leave their homes and businesses — were told Monday they would be allowed to return to their homes on Tuesday afternoon.

The Ashcroft Reserve fire, which forced the departure of the village’s 1,000 residents on July 7, is still burning, but the threat has diminished, said Thompson-Nicola Regional District officials. Residents who return home would remain on evacuation alert.

Ashcroft Indian Reserve resident Glenda Wilson took this photo as the Ashcroft Reserve fire spread to homes on the reserve.

In the Cariboo region, officials have also begun evaluating the possibility of a return for residents evacuated from the District of 100 Mile House and surrounding areas, who have been out of their homes since July 9 when a sudden wind shift in the Gustafsen wildfire prompted an evacuation order of the town’s 1,950 residents.

Cariboo Regional District chairman Al Richmond said Monday that teams have gained access to areas where houses and other buildings have been destroyed northwest of 100 Mile House and are beginning the difficult process of notifying those who have lost homes.

“We can start to phone the residents who have had losses,” he said.

Crews are also working to restore electricity, telephone service and other infrastructure in regions evacuated after the fires broke out July 6.

A steady stream of traffic heads south on Hwy 97 after the Cariboo Regional District ordered a mass evacuation of Williams Lake and area after widfires approached the city and threatened to cut escape route.

At least 40,000 people have been forced from their homes by nearly 160 wildfires in central and southern B.C., while 17,000 others are on evacuation alert.

A wind-fuelled flare-up of a fire near Williams Lake Saturday forced the evacuation of that city, but Richmond said crews had kept the flames in check about five kilometres northwest of the community.

He said a sawmill is in the path of the 80-square kilometre blaze should it advance, as is the Williams Lake emergency operation centre, but there had been no calls for further evacuations.

A number of people have been arrested for looting evacuated homes near Williams Lake, including a 38-year-old prolific offender who was arrested with $65,000 worth of items, said RCMP Staff Sgt. Annie Linteau.

In the Lower Mainland, there has been a surge in evacuees registering with the Canadian Red Cross, said Robert Turner, assistant deputy minister of Emergency Management B.C.

About 700 people had registered at the Cloverdale evacuation centre in Surrey since it opened Friday, while the Chilliwack evacuation centre had helped up to 390 people.

The Chilliwack reception centre opened Saturday in response to the Williams Lake evacuation order.

Charlie Taylor and his dog Molly, outside the Emergency Social Services evacuee reception centre at Cloverdale Arena in Surrey.

Ryan and Kristy Rempel, along with their four children, live near 100 Mile House and although the area where they live is not subject to an evacuation order — it is under evacuation alert — they left home last week because the smoke was affecting their health. 

“We all got the cough, the headache. You could barely see the trees outside our property,” said Kristy. Ryan was also unable to get to work because of the road closures.

The Rempels, who are registered in Chilliwack, have family in the Lower Mainland.

Across B.C., hundreds of people are stepping up to offer whatever support they can.

Kristi McLean posted to a Facebook evacuee support group saying she has a tent trailer at her home near Kamloops that would be perfect for a family.

McLean, who has an autistic son, said it would be a good environment for a family with an autistic child.

“Being in an evacuation centre, I know it wouldn’t be good for us, for sure,” she said in an interview. “Any family with special needs that need a place … we’re cool with it.”

There are numerous offers of accommodation, ranging from a room to full homes.

“Chilliwack accommodation for evacuees: three-bedroom house with full basement,” one posting said.

Others are offering space for evacuees to park their trailers. Many people have said they can provide shelter for pets. “We have space available for evacuee horses, sheep, goats, chickens and a few dogs and/or cats,” one person said.

Supplies for the evacuees are also being offered.

“I have a 20-foot container almost full of non perishable food, Gatorade, baby supplies, toiletries, blankets and pillows,” a Chilliwack resident said.

Related

Near Kelowna, about 60 homes remained on evacuation alert in the community of Lake Country after a fire was sparked Friday, destroying eight homes.

Lake Country Fire Chief Steve Windsor said the 55-hectare blaze started along the side of a road and was 75 per cent contained by Monday. 

Canada’s public safety minister said the federal government is helping in the firefighting effort in every way possible.

Speaking in Pilot Butte, Sask., Ralph Goodale said 500 additional RCMP officers have been sent in to assist with evacuation and to police communities when they have been cleared out.

He said fire crews have been sent in from numerous provinces.

“So Saskatchewan is contributing to the effort as well as Alberta, and virtually every other province right across the country to the Maritimes. So Canadians have rallied together here.”

More than 3,000 people, including firefighters, support staff and 450 personnel brought in from other provinces, are hard at work, said B.C. Wildfire Service chief information officer Kevin Skrepnek.

Fifty personnel from Australia are set to arrive Wednesday. Skrepnek said they are not front line firefighters, but highly trained specialists and support staff, which are difficult positions to fill.

Skrepnek said there is potential for lightning on Wednesday and thunderstorms on Thursday.

“We have a bit of a double-edged sword there,” he said. “Obviously the rain would be welcome, but that could likely bring some lightning with it.”

There were 159 wildfires across B.C. on Monday, with 17 new fires ignited Sunday. None of the new fires are major incidents at this time.

Out of the 159 fires, 15 are interface fires, which threaten structures or communities.

The B.C. Wildfire Branch has responded to 657 fires which has burned at least 1,880 square-kms since April 1, at a cost of $90 million.

— with files from Jen Saltman 

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