With smoke billowing in from a fast-approaching wildfire 1,150 residents of the small town of Hudson’s Hope began an orderly evacuation while ranchers rounded up stock and BC Hydro locked down two massive generating stations.
The Mount McAllister fire was started by a lightning strike on Sunday and by Wednesday morning it had grown to 20,000 hectares, raising alarms in Hudson’s Hope, with emergency workers going door to door in the morning to put people on alert.
Shortly after noon the alert was changed to an evacuation order, said Laurel Grimm, the community’s deputy clerk.
“We were prepared for the worst and we’ve been updated daily. The last two days there has been a lot of smoke and ash falling from the sky, so we knew, obviously, that the fire was fairly close. Did we anticipate it coming this close? No, probably not. But we were prepared,” she said.
Ms. Grimm said people were leaving in an orderly manner and she estimated that about half the residents had gone by early afternoon, with the fire about 50 kilometres to the south, on the far side of the Peace River.
“We’re working very closely with the RCMP and the fire department to make sure that everyone is well educated and know this is a serious threat and they need to evacuate,” said Ms. Grimm. “There are measures in place if people don’t choose to leave their property. We can’t necessarily force them to do it. Right now, we haven’t had too many issues, but they’re prepared for it if it does come up.”
Navi Saini, fire information officer at the provincial Wildfire Management Branch, said there were no firefighters currently working to contain the blaze because it was too dangerous.
“It is burning very aggressively and it’s zero per cent contained right now. We don’t have any firefighters working on the fire right now just because it’s burning too aggressively – it’s not safe for crews to be working on it,” she said.
“More wind and lightning is expected in that area. We are watching that area quite closely and just seeing what that brings,” Ms. Saini said.
Simi Heer, a spokesperson for BC Hydro, said about 200 staff had been evacuated from both the Peace Canyon and W.A.C. Bennett dams and the associated power-generating stations.
The two facilities produce about 30 per cent of B.C.’s hydro-electricity, but Ms. Heer said the plants are being operated remotely and hopefully won’t be affected by the fire.
She said BC Hydro is more immediately concerned with a major power transmission line that passes within seven kilometres of the fire.
Moira Green, the information officer at the emergency operations centre in Fort St. John, said residents of Hudson’s Hope had been trickling in since about 2 p.m. Wednesday.
“There’s a lot of people there right now. It takes about an hour to get from Hudson’s Hope and it’s been a pretty busy day on that stretch of road. I think we’re at peak right now,” she said.
Those who require food, clothing or lodging are asked to check in at the emergency centre that has been set up in the North Peace Arena, while those who have family to stay with are asked to call 250-787-8182 so that emergency workers know where they are.
The displaced residents were not being put up at the arena but in homes in the community. Those bringing their RVs were being found spaces at the Wal-Mart parking lot and a local baseball diamond.
Not everyone was rushing to leave Hudson’s Hope, however.
Lane Milliken, who works hauling water and gravel, was filling up his tanker truck when reached on his cellphone just outside town.
He said an east wind had kept smoke away from town for most the day, but as it swung around to the southwest the smoke was getting heavier.
“I’ll wait to see how bad it gets. I’ve got a lot of stuff I want to make sure she’s wetted down before I run, if it gets that close,” he said. “It’s on the other side of the river, and if they are going to stop it they’ll stop it at the river. And if it gets over the river I’ll head out.”
At Horseshoe Creek Outfitters Ltd., a voice message carried some of the urgency of the moment for ranchers.
“Jackson and I are … going over to help Jeff’s family evacuate this afternoon,” said a woman. “And anybody that needs any help to put animals anywhere, please bring them up to kilometre five, the first field or the second field on the left on the west side, just put them in there. Anybody is welcome to bring them. Sorry, I’m out of breath. We’re on our way.”