More than 1,000 people and major hydro dams under evacuation orders as wildfires cloak much of B.C. in smoke

The Battleship Mountain wildfire is advancing east and is now approximately 12 km from the District of Hudson's Hope in northeastern B.C. (B.C. Wildfire Service - image credit)
The Battleship Mountain wildfire is advancing east and is now approximately 12 km from the District of Hudson's Hope in northeastern B.C. (B.C. Wildfire Service - image credit)

UPDATE — Sept. 13, 2022: Wildfire smoke from B.C. and U.S. spreads east as several blazes remain uncontained

More than a thousand people have been ordered out of their homes as a number of uncontrolled wildfires burn across B.C., with the flames looming over critical power infrastructure and leaving a haze of wildfire smoke over much of the province.

The largest wildfire of note is Battleship Mountain in the province's northeast which, as of Monday afternoon, was estimated to be 280 square kilometres — an area larger than the City of Kelowna.

The lightning-caused fire prompted an evacuation order for the entire community of Hudson's Hope, approximately 360 kilometres northeast of Prince George, on Saturday night. Emergency Management B.C. says in total, 1,032 people in the area have been ordered to leave their homes.

Further south, blazes east and west of Hope have also prompted evacuation orders and alerts.

In all, 162 active wildfires are burning across the province, and air quality advisories remain in effect for much of B.C.

Evacuation order covers 'critical' dams 

In Hudson's Hope, evacuees have been directed to a reception centre in the nearby community of Fort St. John, where they can seek supplies and a place to stay.

Hudson's Hope Mayor Dave Heiberg says residents understand the situation and hope their homes will be protected as the Battleship Mountain wildfire moves closer to the community, which B.C. Wildfire says is now about eight kilometres away from the district's edge.

B.C. Wildfire Service
B.C. Wildfire Service

The evacuation order also covers B.C. Hydro's Peace Canyon and W.A.C. Bennett dams, which are part of the infrastructure responsible for generating 38 per cent of the utility's output each year. The flames were just four kilometers from the W.A.C. Bennett dam on Monday afternoon.

"These dams and their generating stations are critical public infrastructure. Given this, both facilities will continue to be operated with limited staff," B.C. Hydro said in a statement.

The organization said it is also possible to operate the dam remotely, should it become necessary.

"B.C. Hydro has well-established plans to support the reliable supply of power to the province should the fire risk change to either the generation or transmission system."

Containment strategy

Wildfire spokesperson Sarah Hall said teams had "huge success" in controlling the Battleship Mountain fire through controlled burns, but with wind and sun forecast for the rest of the week, it is too soon to know how soon people might be allowed to return to their homes.

"Where the planned ignitions occurred, because we had favourable conditions, we were able to put in some guards on that east flank of the fire — close to Williston Lake," she said.

Hall says Sunday's controlled burns were done from the air and on Monday, ground crews moved in to clear out any remaining fuel. She explained that to create a guard, firefighters use heavy machinery or manual labour to dig down to the mineral layer of soil, remove roots, shrubbery and everything flammable and try to stop the fire in its tracks.

Southeast of Hudson's Hope, an evacuation order for the Community of Kelly Lake was downgraded to an evacuation alert by the Peace River Regional District Monday evening. The wildfire service says efforts to contain the Bearhole Lake fire have been successful and control lines "successfully held during periods of increased fire behaviour over the weekend."

Highway 1 reopens

Blazes west and east of Hope, B.C., prompted evacuation orders and alerts, as well as the closure of the eastbound lanes of Highway 1.

A five-square kilometre fire has been burning near the highway between Chilliwack and Hope, with the flames running through steep terrain, making it challenging for crews, officials said.

BC Wildfire Service
BC Wildfire Service

"Due to hot, dry conditions, increased fire behaviour will be visible today," read a notice from the B.C. Wildfire Service. "[But] our temperatures should be lower today toward seasonable norms and a chance of light showers on Tuesday and Wednesday."

Drive B.C. said Highway 1 was reopened in both directions Monday afternoon but warned drivers to expect delays as the highway is limited to single-lane traffic and a reduced speed limit of 80 km/h.

Air quality still poor

Environment Canada is maintaining air quality statements for areas from the Peace River in the northeast to the Cariboo in central B.C. and the entire southern third of the province.

Justine Boulin//CBC
Justine Boulin//CBC

The federal government's air quality index shows areas with the highest levels of potentially dangerous wood smoke include Cranbrook and Castlegar in southeastern B.C., the eastern Fraser Valley and the communities of Whistler and Squamish.

Wildfires in B.C., Washington, Oregon and Idaho are being blamed for the smoke.

Air quality improved in Metro Vancouver on Monday after poor conditions over the weekend.