Fire situation 'unprecedented'

Evacuated residents of 100 Mile House and the surrounding areas shouldn't expect to be heading home anytime soon, Cariboo Fire Centre deputy manager Mark Hamm said Thursday.

Hamm said that it will be "at least a week" before evacuation orders are lifted in the 100 Mile House area and it could be several weeks before evacuation alerts are lifted in Williams Lake and elsewhere.

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"Even if we get a good dump of rain, that will only effect it temporarily. We have a really dry forest," Hamm said.

Hamm was one of several speakers at an information session held for evacuated residents at UNBC on Thursday night.

"This is a really unprecedented event, to have so many fires all at once," he said. "Think about 2010 and how dry it was then, and we're dealing with an even worse situation now."

The exceptionally-dry conditions turned into an emergency when thunderstorms rolled through the Cariboo region on July 7, sparking numerous wildfires, he said.

"I don't know how many lightning strikes that is," Hamm said of a map showing lightning activity on July 7, "but it's a lot - and it didn't come with a lot of rain."

Trained fire crews and equipment from across Canada have been deployed into the region, but resources are still overstretched, he said.

However, what emergency crews do not want is private citizens returning to the fire zone to fight fires on their own or trying to join fire crews, Hamm said.

"We've got ranchers fighting fires, First Nations members are fighting fires on reserve. Industry people are responding to fires... That's not how it's supposed to happen, though," Hamm said.

"Where we're not willing to go yet is to hire emergency firefighters. The reason is safety. We don't want to see anyone hurt or killed on the fire line."

Cariboo Regional District chairman Al Richmond said evacuation orders are a last resort, and government and emergency officials never make the decision lightly.

As of Thursday night, there were 18 evacuation orders in the regional district he said, including a tactical evacuation he signed on Thursday.

"What a tactical evacuation means is they got no notice. A policeman knocked on their door and said 'get out,'" Richmond said.

"It's a difficult time for everybody. People in 108 (Mile House), if you didn't get a call from me today, your house is fine. I called eight people today. I told six people they lost their homes... I don't like making those calls."

Richmond praised the volunteers from Prince George and across the north who have welcomed evacuated residents from across the district.

"Quite clearly, we needed your help," he said.

100 Mile House Mayor Mitch Campsall's voice cracked with emotion as he addressed many of his friends and neighbours in the crowd who have been evacuated from their homes.

He praised the quick and methodical way 100 Mile House residents and emergency responders handled the evacuation.

"Sunday night forestry runs, not walks, into my office and says, 'We have to move,'" Campsall said.

"I'll never forget 8:47 p.m. on July 9, that's when I had to push the button. Forty-five minutes later everybody got a notice, had a knock on the door. Ninety minutes later, after that, we had everybody out."

Other than a few miscreants who stayed behind intent on looting, everyone was evacuated safely to Prince George, he said.

But the battle is far from over for 100 Mile House, he said. Residents should expect wildfires in the area throughout the summer.

"We've got a monster out there."

B.C. Minister of Public Safety Mike Morris said the RCMP has deployed extra officers to the evacuated areas to prevent looting.

"They're going to be effective down there," Morris said.

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