KAMLOOPS, B.C. – Officials in British Columbia say they are beginning the difficult process of notifying those who have lost homes in the out-of-control wildfires that have prompted a provincial state of emergency.
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.
“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.
“Our staff is actively engaging in the south Cariboo to look at re-entry plans for our residents, should they be able to return home,” Richmond said, although he cautioned return could be “a ways off.”
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 managed to keep 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 was arrested with $65,000 worth of items, said RCMP Staff Sgt. Annie Linteau.
Near Kelowna, about 60 homes remained on evacuation alert in the community of Lake Country after a human-caused 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. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
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 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 staff, including firefighters, support staff and 450 personnel brought in from other provinces, are hard at work, said BC Wildfire Service chief information officer Kevin Skrepnek.
Fifty personnel from Australia are set to arrive Wednesday. Skrepnek said they are not frontline 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.”
Robert Turner, assistant deputy minister of Emergency Management BC, said there had been a surge in evacuees registering with the Canadian Red Cross, including at least 616 at an evacuation centre in Surrey and 330 in Chilliwack.
Turner said Canadian Armed Forces helicopters helped bring food to two First Nations near Williams Lake.
The Tl’etinqox First Nation, which defied an evacuation order, said in a statement Monday that its community still stood after strong winds turned the wildfire towards their community.
Crews of firefighters, 125 of them First Nations, fought back to divert the fast-moving inferno, the First Nation said.
“Our community would not be standing today had we heeded the RCMP order,” said Chief Joe Alphonse.