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Forecast turns favourable in fight against wildfire threatening northern B.C. town

May 16, 2024  By Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press


Fort Nelson, B.C. wildfire evacuee Diane Ens holds her dog Chevy in Fort St. John, B.C., on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. British Columbia's wildfire service says there's potential for gusty winds to fan aggressive fire behaviour in the north, where out-of-control wildfires have forced several thousand people to leave their homes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Greer

A low-pressure system moving into northern British Columbia is expected to dampen wildfire activity that has forced several thousand people to leave their homes in and around Fort Nelson, the BC Wildfire Service says.

Fire officials said Wednesday that cooler temperatures in the low teens along with higher humidity should reduce the likelihood of intense fire activity.

There’s also potential for light rain, which would further lower the risk of the fire spreading closer to the town of about 4,700 residents who were put under an evacuation order on Friday.

They include Diane Ens whose home is on one of the first streets evacuated before the whole town was told to get out.

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She initially moved her household — three daughters, three cats, and a “huge” dog called Chevy — to her mother-in-law’s place in another part of town, before they had to join thousands of others on the 380-kilometre drive south to Fort St. John where most evacuees are now based.

“You’re kind of in denial or shock. You don’t really think it’s gonna happen or that you’re going to be out for more than a day or two or something,” Ens said.

How long they stay in Fort St. John, and what they return to, will depend largely on the weather.

The latest report says overall conditions are favourable for firefighting, with 19 helicopters and 88 wildfire service personnel assigned to the blaze in addition to municipal firefighters from the region.

A fire camp located at the Fort Nelson airport is also expected to be operational by Saturday.

The town and the Fort Nelson First Nation have been under threat from the 84-square-kilometre Parker Lake wildfire burning just outside the community. The out-of-control blaze had exploded in size on Friday and Saturday.

A much more massive fire, the Patry Creek blaze, is burning about 25 kilometres north of Fort Nelson.

It grew to 718 square kilometres in size Wednesday, up from 464 square kilometres a day earlier, but the wildfire service said it did not pose an immediate risk to the town and firefighting conditions were favourable in the short term.

The Doig River First Nation and Peace River Regional District have also issued evacuation orders due to a separate fire north of Fort St. John. That fire was listed as being held after control lines stayed secure overnight.

The Northern Rockies Regional Municipality posted an update saying reduced winds had helped limit the Parker Lake fire’s spread towards Fort Nelson, but the blaze did grow along its southern flank on Tuesday, pushing into the Muskwa River valley.

It adds that a structure defence plan has been finalized for the community, where structure protection personnel are concentrating on the Fort Nelson First Nation, the Antler subdivision south of the nation, and areas along the Old Alaska Highway.

Rob Fraser, the regional municipality’s mayor, told a community meeting Wednesday that it was by “the grace of God” that the Parker Lake fire didn’t sweep through the community on the Friday the evacuation order was made, when winds hit 70 km/h.

Fraser, whose jurisdiction includes Fort Nelson, said he now feels confident they’ll get word eventually that the fire is not impacting the community, but the Patry Creek fire could make things more complicated.

Fraser told the group the Patry Creek fire is nearing a “swampy” area and the hope is it will slow the flames.

He told those gathered that plans to return people home will only happen when the situation is safe, and will be done in a staged process.

Fraser said in a video posted online Tuesday that the thousands of people who escaped to Fort St. John had significantly increased the small town’s population.

He said volunteers helping evacuees were following the provincial emergency services program as they have been trained.

“I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, when it’s 3,500 people (who) drop into a community of 25,000 it’s a shock, it’s a shock to them. So please be patient,” he said.

Ens said the people and businesses of Fort St. John have been “amazing,” offering discounts and freebies to evacuees, and she was grateful for the emergency services available, including hotel vouchers, food per diems, and even clothing allowances for those who didn’t have time to pack.

She was mostly focused on trying to make life less stressful for her pets as she awaited word on what’s happening back home.

Chevy howled and wailed across the parking lot as Ens sat on a bench outside her hotel on Wednesday, reflecting on the last few days.

Ens said she had lived in Fort Nelson for 34 years and had never been evacuated before.

“We’ve had fires around us, we’ve complained of the smoke, but it’s never really affected us personally,” she said.

She said a handful of “hometown heroes” had stayed behind in Fort Nelson to help protect the town.

“Some people have their whole lives that they’ve gotten together over the last 40 years or 50 years and it’s all their belongings and everything,” she said. “They worked for their whole lives, so they’re not wanting to abandon.”

Dan Davies, the BC United MLA for Peace River North, representing Fort Nelson and Fort St. John, said firefighters at the front lines of the wildfire are telling him they have never seen conditions this volatile.

“It’s so bad that when they were actually plowing, (to) make a (fire) break, the dirt was burning. There’s enough dried organics in the soil that it was burning,” he said.

The BC Wildfire Service said conditions remained unseasonably warm and dry throughout much of the province.

The service added that most spring wildfires were typically caused by human activity and everyone must do their part to avoid sparking a blaze. The Parker Creek fire was caused by a fallen power line, Fraser said earlier.

Wildfires this year have already burned through more than 2,600 square kilometres of land in British Columbia, according to the wildfire service.

That’s already enough to place 2024 in the middle of the rankings for the total amounts burned in entire years since 2008, although it’s less than one-tenth of the record 28,000 square kilometres scorched last year.

There are about 125 active wildfires listed in the province, including 14 burning out of control late Wednesday.

With files by Brenna Owen, Ashley Joannou in Vancouver; Dirk Meissner in Victoria

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2024.

News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc., 2023

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