Emergency officials and authorities in one of the B.C. regions where some of the worst wildfire are burning begged visitors to avoid travelling to areas under an evacuation alert on Sunday.
Authorities in Sicamous held a community meeting for residents, roughly 1,000 of whom are under an evacuation order, with others asked to be ready to leave on short notice if their alerts are upgraded to orders.
The regional district urged people with vacation properties and outside visitors to avoid any areas under an evacuation alert, even though locals can stay unless it is upgraded to an order to leave.
“We cannot recommend that people come to an alert area at this time; should that turn into an order, that means more people we have to get out,” Tracy Hughes, Columbia Shuswap Regional District spokesperson, told attendees and those attending by videoconference.
“I understand this is a sensitive topic, it is near and dear to many people’s wallets and their hearts — this is a resort community, people’s bread and butter are the tourists for the large part — but we cannot in good conscience, for the safety of people at this time” encourage outside visitors, Ms. Hughes said.
Officials said the nearby wildfire is now estimated to be 10 square kilometres in size, but firefighters have successfully pushed the flames back to higher elevations farther from residential areas. However, they cautioned the terrain is very steep, and extensive smoke has made dropping water from the air more difficult.
“We’re trying to put out just the first 100 feet of the perimeter to stop it growing laterally toward the two communities,” said Alan Berry, with B.C.’s wildfire service, who this weekend became the incident commander for the wildland component of the Sicamous-area wildfire. “That’s been our focus; resources are thin.”
The mayor of Sicamous acknowledged how much a sacrifice evacuated residents are making but assured them it is helping in the effort to combat the wildfires threatening their community.
Mayor Terry Rysz, who also sits on the regional district board, said he has “lost a lot of sleep over this,” but could not yet say how soon evacuated residents could return to their homes.
He said he’s asked for increased RCMP and private security companies to guard people’s abandoned houses, but said resources are too scarce to maintain access checkpoints. Police said they are instead patrolling evacuated areas frequently until they can increase their staffing.
“I know there are people hoping to go back to their homes,” Rysz said. “Can you imagine if this thing goes sour on us and we have to take everybody and remove them from the district of Sicamous, the entirety of the community?… All of a sudden if things change — it happened in Fort McMurray, it happened in Lytton. It could happen here.”
The district launched a new emergency notification system on Friday, which can alert residents of evacuation alerts, orders and other “critical” information by text message, computer, email or even home assistant devices. Residents must register to receive alerts.
The B.C. Wildfire Service says more than 250 wildfires are currently burning across the province, with hundreds of firefighters continuing to work through challenging terrain in hot, dry conditions.
The number is down from last week when there were 300 active fires, the agency said.
On Sunday, the province also warned backcountry and wilderness users to be careful not to accidentally spark wildfires, given the current extreme fire risks and suggested outside visitors rebook their trips away from fire-impacted areas.
B.C. Parks said it has fully closed 32 provincial parks due to wildfire threats. Among those closed entirely are Crater Lake, Tunkwa, Skaha Bluffs and Bonaparte provincial parks. Another nine park locations are partly closed to visitors, including Kootenay Lake, Arrow Lakes and Wells Gray provincial parks, as well as parts of the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy.
“Do not take unnecessary risks in the backcountry,” Emergency Management BC said in a statement released Sunday. “If the area you were planning to travel to is impacted by wildfires, or under an evacuation alert or order, connect with a local visitor centre to rebook your trip to another area of the province.”
On Saturday afternoon, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth greeted 101 firefighters from Mexico to help work alongside crews in British Columbia for the next 30 days.
Thousands of residents have been placed under evacuation orders and alerts as fires continue to move closer to homes and communities.
There are currently 58 evacuation orders in place, affecting about 4,400 properties, while nearly 17,500 properties are under evacuation alerts, meaning residents have been told to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
In the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, authorities cancelled an evacuation order and alert Sunday affecting the Durand Lake area but said the order to leave the vicinity of the Tremont Creek wildfire remains in place.
Despite the drop in the number of active wildfires, Farnworth said there is challenging weather in the forecast for the foreseeable future.
Some people living in Grand Forks and the surrounding areas have been without a phone, internet and TV service for two days.
Shaw Communications said service was lost Friday due to wildfire activity nearby.
Grand Forks is about 125 kilometres east of Osoyoos, close to the U.S. border. The Nk’Mip Creek wildfire is burning about six kilometres north of Osoyoos.
Shaw has not said how many customers are affected, but technicians are on hold from addressing the problem as local officials and Fortis BC have restricted access to where Shaw’s infrastructure is due to wildfire activity.
“Shaw technicians are awaiting … site clearance before further repairs can take place,” said Shaw on its website. Meanwhile, some customers said on Twitter that the outage is affecting their ability to connect to vital information.
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