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Wildfires cause more evacuation orders and alerts for north-central British Columbia

The board chair of the Bulkley-Nechako region has had a long week and expects the next one will not be any better, as more evacuation orders and alerts are in effect for an area of north-central British Columbia nearly surrounded by forest fires.

“I’ve had better weeks,” he chuckled softly over the phone from Burns Lake, B.C., a community 1,000 kilometres northeast of Vancouver.

The 35-kilometre stretch of land under evacuation order is west of the community of Fort St. James, in a mostly rural area, while an expanded evacuation alert includes several properties near the district municipality’s western edge.

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Miller said they have been lucky with the most recent evacuation area expansion, as no properties or families in the area have been forced out in a zone most made up of camping and recreational sites.

However, he said if the fires continue to burn eastward, it will begin to affect residents in Fort St. James, and they need to be prepared to leave immediately if the alert is upgraded to an order in the next three to five days.

“The alert has expanded significantly to cover the community of Fort St. James and some other First Nations communities as well,” said Miller.

The wildfire burning near Shovel Lake that prompted the evacuation orders has grown to roughly 300 square kilometres and is one of the largest wildfires in the province, though Fire Information Officer Marg Drysdale of the BC Wildfire Service said the 2017 fire season had few but larger blazes to deal with.

“We had fires last season which were well over 100,000 hectares (1,000 square kilometres),” said Drysdale from the scene of the fire, adding the fires currently burning are not the biggest in B.C. history.

Drysdale is part of an incident management team dealing with several fires in the area she called the VanJam complex due to its proximity to the town of Vanderhoof and Fort St. James.

She said they have 73 firefighters and 53 pieces of heavy equipment, including bulldozers and water tankers, split into two flanks to keep the fire from spreading toward the communities.

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She added the lack of rain and continual hot, dry weather with gusting winds have not helped crews, though the fire did not grow further overnight.

“It’s a bad fire season, there’s really no other way to put it,” she said.

She said two other incident management teams from Australia and New Zealand were also working in the area, supporting the BC Wildfire Service crews.

BC Wildfire Service chief information officer Kevin Skrepnek said there were nearly 600 blazes burning across the province, though the southern portion of the province did receive some rain over the weekend.

The northern part of the province was not so lucky.

“Unfortunately, we are not seeing a lot of relief in sight from the weather,” Skrepnek said.

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Miller said he expects residents and communities living along the Cunningham forest service road to evacuate the area if access along the road is cut off or restricted.

He said when he left work in Burns Lake on Saturday afternoon, the smoke from the fires had darkened the skies so much it seemed as if the sun had already set.

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