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British Columbia B.C. Indigenous communities work to keep wildfires at bay

An area of Boston Flats, B.C., is pictured on Tuesday after a wildfire ripped through the region earlier in the week.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Residents of Williams Lake, B.C., were packing their bags on Tuesday and preparing to flee following a citywide evacuation alert due to encroaching wildfires. But in some nearby communities, the alert has only strengthened residents' resolve to hunker down and defend their territory.

The Tsilhqot'in Nation, which comprises six communities near Williams Lake, said four of them are in danger. Joe Alphonse, chief of the Tl'etinqox and the tribal chair of the Tsilhqot'in, said that while most of his community's 1,000 residents have fled following a recent evacuation order, about 300 have stayed behind.

"We're going to stay behind and fight for our property," he said. "In the end, maybe we'll lose a lot of our property. But we'll take comfort in knowing we did everything in our power to prevent it from happening."

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Those who have stayed behind have been given tasks such as cooking for crews, trucking in water and retrieving supplies from Williams Lake. They have extinguished grass fires and dampened property to keep flames at bay.

"This is actually building morale," Mr. Alphonse said.

"If we were sitting up in Prince George or elsewhere, everybody would be depressed. Everybody would feel helpless. Here, everybody feels like they have a part to play in how this all unfolds."

The area has been without power since Saturday. The province has provided the Tsilhqot'in with satellite phones.

The Williams Lake evacuation alert was issued on Monday in anticipation of Wednesday's weather forecast, which has potential to quickly push nearby fires toward the city.

As of Tuesday afternoon, those fires remained relatively stable and the predicted weather pattern had not yet developed, according to the city.

Kevin Skrepnek, B.C.'s chief fire information officer, said the fact that Williams Lake has a population of more than 10,000 people, which could worsen traffic egress on the highway in the event of an evacuation order, also factored into the decision to issue the alert proactively.

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"At this point, it's going to be a wait-and-see [situation] from here on in," he said.

Yunesit'in Chief Russell Myers Ross said roughly 20 residents of his community stayed behind with firefighting crews.

He has heard anecdotally that some have woken up in the middle of the night to extinguish small fires creeping over the fields.

"Their livelihoods are there," he said.

"And I don't think they feel comfortable leaving somewhere and being given the order that they can't return. They have horses and other animals there."

Robert Turner, assistant deputy minister at Emergency Management B.C., said only that his organization, which emphasizes public safety, encourages communities to heed the advice of experts who have advised the areas be evacuated.

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The number of fires burning across the province remained relatively stable on Tuesday, at about 219.

Of those, 35 started on Monday.

More than 14,300 evacuees had registered with the Red Cross, but the organization noted that many still have not.

There have been 599 fires since the start of the wildfire season on April 1, at a cost estimate of $53.5-million, Mr. Skrepnek said.

More than 1,000 B.C. firefighters are currently battling the blazes, with about 300 colleagues and support staff arriving from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick this week.

Three hundred additional RCMP members from outside the fire areas have been redeployed to help and another 40 members are being brought in from Alberta, Deputy Commissioner Brenda Butterworth-Carr said on Tuesday.

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Officers are patrolling evacuated areas around the clock and about 10 people have been arrested for break and enters in 100 Mile House and Williams Lake, she said.

"This is an unprecedented situation and one that continues to rapidly change. We appreciate the public's patience."

With a report from Canadian Press

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