National News

B.C. residents ready to flee as wildfire spreads

By Vivian Luk and Beth Leighton, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - Linda Corscadden has been watching nervously from the back lawn of her West Kelowna, B.C., home as water bombers strafe a raging fire just a kilometre away.

The Smith Creek wildfire kindled Thursday afternoon and within hours forced 2,500 people from their homes as it swelled to an estimated four-square kilometres.

That number was later downgraded to 2.5 square kilometres by the Wildfire Management Branch, which noted smoke had made earlier estimates difficult.

Still, Corscadden fears her neighbourhood will be next to get the order to clear out.

"I got off work in Peachland at about two o'clock (Thursday) and I thought, when I was driving up Old Okanagan Highway, it didn't look bad," she said in a phone interview. "And then by three o'clock it had spread and come over that hill and now it's right in front of my house."

Corscadden, her son, and mother, were ready to scramble within a moment's notice.

"My truck was packed as soon as I saw the fire come over the hill there, right in front of my house," she said.

The air is filled with thick smoke, and trees can occasionally be seen going up in flames, Corscadden said. Many of her neighbours also stayed home from work on Friday, watching the smoky horizon anxiously and hoping they wouldn't lose their homes to the blaze.

"There are houses on that hillside, so just watching to make sure they don't go up in flames is actually scary," Corscadden said. "We're on the verge of tears because we know they're working so hard, but it doesn't seem to be contained at all. It's spreading."

Though crews had managed to contain 20 per cent of the fire, the blaze was expected to get more aggressive Friday with wind in the forecast, said Kayla Pepper with B.C's Wildfire Management Branch.

"So earlier this morning crews were seeing a decrease in fire activity, however, going into the afternoon with the increased wind, we may see an increase in fire activity once again," she said.

The blaze was also burning within 100 metres of the main feeder powerline that services the towns of Peachland, Westbank and West Kelowna. Area residents were urged to prepare themselves to be without power and self-sustaining for several days.

Premier Christy Clark, whose riding encompasses the Smith Creek wildfire, was in the community on Friday.

Clark said the province is spending roughly $5 million a day combating wildfires — an amount that has already caused the government to blow its entire firefighting budget.

"We are not going to stop spending money because it's expensive," she told reporters. "We are going to do everything we can to protect people and property across this province."

Clark said the province is well-equipped to battle wildfires, and whether the Mars water bombers will be reactivated is something that should be determined by emergency personnel.

"We know we have the resources we need on the ground and in the air right now to do everything we can," she said. "The one thing we cannot control is the weather, unfortunately, so we're counting on the winds to blow in the right direction, the air to cool, hoping for some rain."

The last Mars bomber retired from use in 2013 was able to skim 27,000 litres of water in one lake dip.

The Smith Creek fire is one of 160 fires burning across British Columbia, including 17 major fires, about a dozen of which threaten homes or outbuildings.

Just hours after the Smith Creek broke out, 120 residents of a small community in the Fraser Canyon, 260 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, were also told to get out of their homes.

The Botanie Road fire, at almost five-square kilometres in size, is threatening an area just north of Lytton, on the north side of the Thompson River, and an evacuation alert has also been served on several properties between Botanie Creek and Highway 12.

Crews are also working on a three-hectare wildfire sparked Thursday morning on the south side of the Harrison River, four kilometres west of Harrison Hot Springs in the Fraser Valley. By Friday, the human-caused blaze was listed as 40 per cent contained, although it is still threatening BC Hydro lines in the area 120 kilometres east of Vancouver.

The Wildfire Management Branch reported 1,500 provincial staff, nearly 800 B.C. contractors and 94 out-of-province personnel are already involved in the battle and more help is on the way.

Branch spokeswoman Navi Saini said 40 sustained-action firefighters from Quebec, 20 from Nova Scotia and 20 from New Brunswick will arrive Saturday, and 120 more crew members from Ontario will arrive Sunday.

She said the firefighters will fly into Prince George and will be deployed throughout the province based on current and anticipated fire activity.

Smoke from the fires is covering several communities in the province.

Environment Canada and B.C.'s Environment Ministry have issued smoke advisories and a special air quality statement for many parts of the central Interior, from the Cariboo, just south of Prince George, south to the U.S. border.

The advisories warn smoke concentrations will vary widely due to fire, wind and temperature changes, but everyone in the affected regions is urged to avoid strenuous outdoor activities while people with chronic conditions are advised to stay inside.

In 2012, a quick-spreading fire tore through three kilometres of forests and fields in Peachland, forcing 1,500 people to flee their homes and destroying four houses.

The summer of 2003 is considered the worst fire season in B.C. history. The province responded to 2,500 wildfires that together scorched 2,600 square kilometres of forests and destroyed 334 homes.

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