Forest fires which resulted in the closure of Highway 97 on Saturday are forcing highway travelers to make long detours if they hope to reach southern areas of the province from Prince George.
The highway southbound is closed, 15 kilometres south of Quesnel. The only detour available for southbound travelers is Highway 16 east to Tete Jaune Cache, then south on Highway 5 to Kamloops. Highway 97 is also closed in both directions at the junction of Highway 99 north of Cache Creek. Road closures on Highway 1 are in place to and from Cache Creek, 10 kilometres west of the village and five km to the east.
With evacuation orders in effect in Ashcroft, Cache Creek, Princeton, 105 Mile House, 108 Mile Ranch, Lac la Hache and parts of Williams Lake near the Sugarcane First Nation reserve, a state of emergency has been declared for the province, the first time that order has been issued since the wildfires of 2003 when 2,500 fires affected the province. There are now 183 wildfires burning.
John Rustad, the province's Minister of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations said in a news conference Saturday afternoon that close to 1,000 firefighters are involved, backed by about 200 private contractors. The province is bringing in an additional 260 personnel to deal with the emergency, due to arrive Monday or Tuesday.
“The fire situation continues to be very difficult with fires that are very challenging to attack because of the intensity and nature of the fire activity," said Rustad. “We are expecting additional resources to come in from other provinces including additional water bombers and personnel to help spell off our firefighters to make sure they have some rest time.
"Our primary goal through all of this is to make sure we protect life, we make sure people are safe throughout the area," he said. "Our secondary goal, of course, is to protect key infrastructure such as roads and hydro lines and other assets including peoples homes, where we can."
The entire 100 Mile House district is under an evacuation alert, as are Williams Lake, Quesnel, Anahim Lake, Alexis Creek First Nation, Alexander First Nation and Williams Lake First Nation.Rustad has had discussions with the federal government in case the military is needed to help deal with what he said is an escalating situation. He said industrial operations in the affected areas have been shut down. Smoke and fog has made it difficult to determine where structures have been affected by the fires.
A dry lightning storm and high winds Friday afternoon touched off 142 new fires, including several in the Prince George region. Three of the fires were in an area west of the city and at least two of those are still burning. The fire danger is rated at high to extreme in many areas of the province, and with high temperatures forecast to reach the high-20s and low-30s the next two days, fire activity is expected to increase.
B.C. Wildfire Service fire information officer Donna MacPherson said one of those fires, west of Otway Nordic Centre, was extinguished Friday but two fires continue to burn, one on either side of Otway Road near Miworth.
"The two other ones are new, both of them are tracking within fire department jurisdiction," said MacPherson. "The one on the south is definitely within (Prince George Fire Rescue) jurisdiction but the other one (north of Otway Road) may be within our jurisdiction and we're working with local government on that one as well."
There were six lightning strikes within the city limits Friday. MacPherson said the Prince George fire zone was fortunate because the lightning hits were in more favourable areas to prevent the fires from growing large, as compared to the Cariboo and Kamloops regions, where multiple evacuations resulted.
"We have five fires to the southeast within 12 kilometres of the city, and another ring further out, and there's more lightning (forecast for Sunday)," said MacPherson
"Right now we're focusing on life and safety, so we're sending the resources where we need to based on the fire risk. I can't promise we're going to be sending anything to a lot of the fires that are within the P.G. fire centre because there are so many. If they pose a risk we'll be getting resources on them as soon as we can."
Windy conditions led to the rapid spread of the Cariboo and Interior fires and people under evacuation order were given very little time before they had to leave their homes. As many as 7,000 residents from about 3,000 households have been evacuated to shelters in Kamloops, Williams Lake and 100 Mile House, with some people being sent to Prince George.
Heavy smoke in the air at Williams Lake prompted the Interior Health Authority to move patients to facilities in Quesnel and Prince George. An evacuation registration centre has been set up at the College of New Caledonia campus at the 3330-22nd Ave., and people are being offered shelter in the CNC gymnasium.
The Gustafsen fire west of 100 Mile House which started Thursday afternoon is among four large wildfires burning out of control and has grown to 1,500 hectares, with zero containment reported by the BC Wildfire Service. There are concerns it could spread to Lac La Hache and the west side of the resort community has been evacuated. A fire which started near Ashcroft has destroyed several dozen residences and covers 4,000 hectares. Two other large fires are burning, one 10 km northeast of Princeton and the other 30 km north of Harrison Hot Springs. Strong winds fanned the flames of the Princeton fire, which now covers 1,500 hectares, seven times what it was on Friday.
A near the Williams Lake Airport continues to burn and all non-emergency flights to and from that airport have been canceled.
The fire near Cache Creek destroyed two hangars at the regional airport and 30 homes were consumed by flames at a trailer park in Boston Flats, seven kilometres south of the village.
BC Hydro relations co-ordinator Dave Mosure says BC Hydro crews are being assembled from Prince George, Vernon and Kamloops and will work to restore power as soon as possible. He said Saturday afternoon that 2,900 customers in the 100 Mile House area are without power, as are 2,267 homes in the Horsefly area near Williams Lake.
"We know equipment has been damaged and our access to areas is restricted because of the fire situation," said Mosure. "There are burnt poles and lines are down and we are mobilizing extra crews. At this point, access to the various areas in the communities is restricted to fire operations and we're in a holding pattern.
"Until we have done a full damage assessment as to what equipment needs to be replaced and whether we need to remove equipment from a house that's no longer there, for example, it has to be safe and then we can start restoring power as quickly as we can."
People are being asked to report any wildfire by calling 1-800-663-5555 (toll-free) or on your cell phone at *5555. Road closure updates are available on the Drive BC website, drivebc.com. For evacuation information, go to www.emergencyinfobc.gov.bc.ca.