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Water bombers douse part of the Nk'Mip Creek wildfire near Osoyoos, B.C., on July 20, 2021.MIKE FITZPATRICK/Reuters

Firefighters on Canada’s West Coast say their effort to battle one of British Columbia’s worst-ever wildfire seasons is being hampered by the refusal of some area residents to evacuate their homes, even as flames close in.

Rob Schweitzer, director of fire centre operations at the BC Wildfire Service, said there were several reports of people not heeding evacuation orders over the weekend. Municipal leaders in threatened areas told The Globe and Mail they’re also encountering reluctance to leave among residents.

Mr. Schweitzer said these refusals hinder his agency and divert its resources. For example, he said, the wildfire service might be forced to send its helicopters and other aircraft to rescue someone trapped behind a fire line.

The provincial government’s emergency information agency, EmergencyInfoBC, listed 3,375 properties across the province as being under one of 63 evacuation orders on Tuesday evening, the latest update available. Residents in a further 18,065 homes have been alerted that they may be forced to evacuate at a moment’s notice if the blazes threatening their communities get worse.

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“We do need the public’s co-operation and support on this front,” Mr. Schweitzer said on Tuesday during a news conference. He characterized the current wildfire conditions as some of the most extreme ever seen in B.C. “Those situations can be disorienting and confusing, and your ability to keep yourself and your family safe may be severely impacted,” he said.

He said many people have died in other jurisdictions when they chose to remain behind despite evacuation orders, but he did not say whether anyone in B.C. has died or been injured in similar circumstances this season. He added that when people ignore an order to evacuate, firefighters are duty-bound to protect their lives and property.

Barbara Roden, the mayor of the Village of Ashcroft, said a number of people from her community chose to stay home during a recent wildfire scare. On July 17, residents of 60 properties on the eastern edge of Ashcroft, about an 80-minute drive east of Kamloops, were ordered to evacuate as the Tremont Creek Wildfire drew near.

“A lot of people are ranchers, they’re farmers. They’re deeply attached, of course, to their properties. And so their instinct is to stay and protect them,” she said.

She stressed that staying behind could put these people – and rescue teams – in immense danger, because fires can change very swiftly, sometimes cutting off the only road in and out.

Ms. Roden said when orders are issued, the RCMP knocks on doors to inform residents and spell out the risks, but that Mounties cannot compel people to leave.

Tom Moe, the fire chief in nearby Cache Creek, said his community also experienced evacuation reluctance earlier this month, when some residents wanted to stay and protect their properties. He estimated that more people are choosing to stay home this season compared to 2017, when the massive Elephant Hill wildfire ravaged the area.

“People that evacuated in 2017 found that they really hated being away from their homes for that long, and maybe thought that there really wasn’t that much danger in staying,” Mr. Moe wrote in an e-mail.

He said local officials are telling residents that they are not allowed to leave their properties if they choose to stay, and that if they do leave they won’t be allowed back. He noted the RCMP asked for dental information from residents who have chosen to stay, “to reinforce the message that if anything happens, dental records may be needed to identify you.”

Kathy Norman, a public information officer with the Cariboo Regional District, said all her front-line staff can do is remind people that the evacuation orders are for their benefit. She noted that there is misinformation circulating on social media. People should only seek evacuation-related information online from official accounts, such as the ones belonging to her district, she said.

Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb said when his city was ordered to evacuate, in 2017, some people chose to stay. Those who did faced danger not only from fire, but also from smoke inhalation, he said.

Both Mr. Cobb and Ms. Roden said those who remain on their properties could also be in danger of running out of water, food and medication.

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