WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. — Crews started controlled fires west of Williams Lake, B.C., on Thursday in an all-out effort to protect the city of about 11,000 people.
Back-burning is a way of basically fighting fire with fire, said Kevin Skrepnek, chief information officer with the BC Wildfire Service.
“Controlled fires, kind of on the perimeter to starve out any fuel that the fire might get into over the next few days, so that was certainly happening west of Williams Lake,” he explained.
He said there was concern that the fire near Williams Lake, and many others burning in the Cariboo region, could grow as winds were expected to pick up again for most of southern B.C.
Wind has been a huge factor in fanning the flames, he said.
“The ferocity they have burned with, the aggressive growth we have seen out there, a lot of that has been wind-driven, so that is definitely a cause for concern, given how many active fires we’ve got out there now.”
Skrepnek said another 50 firefighters from other parts of Canada were expected to arrive Thursday to help hold back dozens of fires, many of them threatening homes or property.
New mapping of the fires showed about 1,110-square kilometres of grass, bush and forest has burned since the fire season started in April, he said.
Residents of Williams Lake have been on alert since Monday to leave at a moments notice as the fire approaches the city.
Mayor Walt Cobb said he was feeling more optimistic that the city can be protected.
“The wind has gone down. Some smoke has cleared. I can actually see clouds and sun and blue sky,” he said. “It’s like night and day, but we’re still in danger.”
A new evacuation order was issued for a rural area southwest of Williams Lake on Wednesday night when winds shifted.
British Columbia has declared a state of emergency as nearly 190 wildfires burned across the province, primarily in the central and southern Interior. More than 16,000 people have been displaced.
Cobb said fire suppression crews and about 100 police officers were standing by in the community. Military personnel were ready to assist with mass evacuations, if necessary, he said.
The mayor estimated about 40 to 60 per cent of residents had already left town.
“Some are afraid. Some have young kids and they don’t want to take the chance. But a lot of it was the smoke.”
Cobb said he believed everyone left in Williams Lake would follow evacuations orders, adding anyone who defies them risks the lives of firefighters who might have to save people from burning homes.
“What I’m suggesting to people is: If you’re going to stay and you’re not going to evacuate when you’re told to evacuate, make sure you’ve got your dental records so if you burn up in the fire we can identify you,” he said.
Robert Turner of Emergency Management B.C. said about 9,400 people had registered with the Canadian Red Cross. About 1,800 families will have received a $600 assistance package from the province by the end of Thursday, he added.
Geoff Paynton, director of communications for the Williams Lake emergency operations centre, said there was enough food and gasoline in the city as trucks were getting through. The issue was staff shortages, he said.
The Ministry of Forests Lands and Natural Resource Operations announced on Thursday that the entire Cariboo fire centre, 103,000 square kilometres in size, has been closed to backcountry users as a safety precaution, allowing crews to focus on firefighting.
John Hawkings, director of recreation sites and trails, said the closure includes 165 campsites and 65 trails in the Cariboo fire centre, in addition to 18 sites outside the centre that were affected by forest fires.
Dozens of provincial parks, ecological reserves and protected areas have also been closed in the fire centre because of the wildfire hazard.
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