First Nation, regional district in central B.C. Interior orders wildfire evacuations

VICTORIA — Weekend winds in British Columbia's central Interior resulted in increased wildfire activity and saw evacuation orders in remote areas north of Burns Lake.

The Cheslatta Carrier Nation and the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako both issued evacuation orders Saturday night due to the Wells Creek wildfire.

The wildfire is listed as out of control and has covered 79 square kilometres.

The evacuation orders cover properties along Ootsa Lake Road and several Cheslatta Carrier Nation reserve sites.

The area's Francois Lake Ferry was offering 24 hour shuttle service for emergency services and to assist with evacuation orders.

A BC Wildfire Service information officer said Sunday the weather in the area is improving, with reduced winds and a return to more seasonal temperatures.

"We had a big cold front come in through the northern areas on Friday and Saturday, and that brought a bunch of wind with it, so we saw a lot of fire growth," said Nic Kokolski. "Now, the winds have subsided in the north, so that's looking helpful there."

But B.C.'s north and central regions and the rest of the province could benefit from some sustained precipitation, Kokolski said.

"We're still not anticipating significant amounts of rain," he said.

The Wells Creek evacuation orders came after similar orders for a total of 50 properties in West Kelowna and wildfire areas south of Kamloops and in the Shuswap Lake areas were downgraded to alert status Saturday.

The move means dozens of people in the Kamloops, Shuswap and Kelowna areas can return to their homes, but regional fire officials said residents should still be prepared to leave on short notice.

There are currently 405 properties on evacuation order and 20,011 on evacuation alert in the West Kelowna area.

Preparations are underway in the Shuswap Lake area to have residents whose homes were destroyed or damaged in the Bush Lake East wildfire to privately view and assess their losses, Tracy Hughes, Columbia Shuswap Regional District spokeswoman, said Sunday at a briefing.

"Our hearts go out to you, those who have experienced losses," she said. "It seems unimaginable I'm sure, and there are really just no words but to say that we're here, we're here to try to help you through this process."

Almost 170 properties are listed as destroyed in the Bush Creek East wildfire that continues to burn in the North Shuswap Lake area.

Hughes said 3,663 properties remain on evacuation order in the area and 1,322 properties remain on alert.

BC Hydro spokeswoman Mary Anne Coules said the Bush Creek East wildfire did major damage to electricity infrastructure in the area, but the public power utility's emergency crews have been making progress on repairs over the past days.

The wildfire affected 27 kilometres of power lines, destroyed 430 power poles and 66 pieces of infrastructure equipment, she said.

About one-third of the power poles have been replaced and power has been restored to 1,246 properties, with another 1,585 more properties expected to have electricity by Sunday evening, said Coules.

BC Wildfire Service spokeswoman Marg Drysdale said the Bush Creek East wildfire is still considered out of control, but crews have been making good progress over recent days and mop up activities have started.

"Crews have been able to get onto the fires and get some solid work done over the last few days," she said. "A lot of the work they are currently doing is mop up. Crews are going to be doing a lot of mop up and patrol."

Drysdale said similar progress has also been made by crews battling the Ross Moore Lake wildfire, located just south of Kamloops.

The BC Wildfire Service reported 438 active fires in B.C. Sunday, with 23 new wildfires reported over the past 24 hours.

There have been 2,071 wildfires in B.C. so far this season, said the wildfire service.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2023.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press