Evacuees stay cautious as order lifted for parts of Williams Lake area

Relief only began to describe how Ruth Shaw felt Thursday upon learning the evacuation order for Williams Lake and some outlying areas had been lifted.

She, her daughter and some grandchildren, had been living out of a camper parked at the Aquatic Centre for more than two weeks. To boot, one of their dogs had given birth to 10 puppies this week and another is due to have a litter in the next day or so. 

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What's more, they left plenty of livestock behind when they evacuated their rural property in Springhouse, outside Williams Lake.

"I'll be so glad to get back," Shaw said. "The kids' 4-H pigs and everything got turned loose."

While the Shaws were still getting things in order for the trip back home, the forest of camper and trailers populating the parking lot was decidedly sparser by midday as many evacuees quickly left when the news broke.

As well as Williams Lake proper, the order was lifted for Sugarcane, 150 Mile House, Fox Mountain, Esler, Pine Valley and Springhouse.

But those areas remain under an evacuation alert and residents who return are being asked to be prepared to move back out again at a moment's notice.

Morever, other areas near Williams Lake remain under the evacuation order: Spokin Lake, areas north and south of Mountain House Road including Wildwood, areas along Soda Creek and Frizzel Road, Soda Creek First Nation and areas in the Chilcotin.

Even with the order rescinded, Grant Sopp was in no rush to return. Instead, he planned to wait until the alert is also no longer in place out of concern he might have to evacuate again.

"It's zero per cent contained, it's still out of control, why are we being stupid?" Sopp said. "They're sending people back to an area where it's not safe."

Similarly, Tiara Ross said her family also intends to wait it out.

"My little brothers, they started getting nose bleeds back before we evacuated because of the smoke," Ross said. "And our dogs weren't doing well with it, either."

It could be a long wait. Fire season doesn't usually begin until August.

"We will likely be on high alert for likely the remainder of this summer," Prince George-Cariboo MP Todd Doherty said during a press conference in Williams Lake.

Lowering the order back to an alert was "not an easy decision," Williams Lake mayor Walt Cobb said. The move was made after flying over the fires on Wednesday.

"We know there's still a risk and we can't emphasize that [enough] but we can't keep people away forever," Cobb said. "So we looked at the risk and said 'OK, there is a good chance everybody's going to be safe for a long time.'"

Cobb urged an orderly return to the community of 11,000 people south of Prince George.

Krista Dunleavey, the B.C. Wildfire Service manager for the Cariboo region, painted a dark picture of what evacuees will find once back home.

"They are returning to an area that has been profoundly affected by wildfire," she said. "Trees damaged by wildfire can be unstable and come down at any time. Ash pits can be hard to see and can remain hot for days or weeks after the fire has passed through.

"Fences have been damaged and livestock as well as wildlife disrupted by the wildfire activity, may be on roadways. Smoky conditions are expected to persist in the area for some time."

Back at the Aquatic Centre in this city, Nadina Doyle will have to continue to wait it out after three weeks of living in a camper. She resides in Spokin Lake, one of the areas still under an evacuation order.

"The hospitality is great, it's the homesickness that's getting everybody," Doyle said. "You miss your own bed, you miss cooking with the herbs and spices that didn't come up with you."

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