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British Columbia Cache Creek residents return home after being forced out by B.C. wildfires

A helicopter is used to battle a wildfire burning on the top of a mountain near Ashcroft, B.C., on July 10, 2017.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Residents of Cache Creek were welcomed home by smiling and waving first responders on Tuesday, 11 days after being forced to evacuate because of volatile wildfires.

Several noted it has been a difficult year for the community, which lost its fire chief in the spring. Clayton Cassidy's body was found late May, three weeks after he was swept away while checking on rising water levels.

BC Emergency Health Services superintendent Norene Parke was among those who stood in uniform outside the local fire hall.

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"It's a heartfelt moment," she said. "These people might have lost everything and they're coming home to their homes intact. The fire department, ambulance and police kept the town safe while they were gone."

An evacuation order was issued for the entire village on July 7, sending most of its 1,000 residents south to Kamloops. While lifted, an evacuation alert remains in place, meaning residents should be prepared to leave again on short notice if need be.

The initial threat – a rapidly moving wildfire formerly called the Ashcroft Reserve fire but since renamed the Elephant Hill fire – grew to 52,600 hectares by Tuesday, with only 30 per cent containment. But officials say most of that growth was to the north, away from the Cache Creek area, and it no longer poses an immediate threat to the village.

Early afternoon on Tuesday, a lineup of vehicles had formed along Highway 1, the main road heading back into town. At 3 p.m., the stretch of highway leading to Cache Creek was reopened, and police directed traffic in. On the horizon, a large plume of smoke served as a reminder that fire officials still had to remain vigilant.

Many homes and vehicles were covered in red fire retardant. Yellow police tape tied to front doors signified officers had checked them during the evacuation process. Cache Creek Mayor John Ranta said a few structures had been damaged: two airport hangars, one house near the airport and a couple of outbuildings.

"Everything should be back to normal," he said. "If people have asthma or other breathing issues, it might be prudent to wait a day or two to come back to the community, because it's quite smokey here."

Jeremy MacDonald returned home in advance of his wife and two young boys to clean their home up. The Thompson-Nicola Regional District directed residents to a package of information on what to do upon returning; some perishable foods may have to be thrown away, and fire retardants can cause health issues and must be cleaned up safely.

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"Just to go in your house, you need a mask, gloves and change of clothes, because if you get it on there, a lot of that doesn't wash out," Mr. MacDonald said. "And if you get it in your garden or fruit trees, it's not safe anymore to eat. And if you put bleach on the red fire retardant, it makes explosive gases."

Dean Muir and his wife were alerted to the seriousness of the encroaching fire when they looked out the window and saw planes dumping fire retardant on to nearby buildings. They left with only their wallets, cigarettes and a few important papers.

"We were really lucky," Mr. Muir said. "We're fairly self-sufficient though; we could have taken off for many days, or a month, and been okay. We know some people in Boston Flats where the homes were destroyed, like 91-year-old Leroy, starting all over again. He ain't got time to rebuild."

As of Tuesday, 155 fires burned across the province, including 15 that are posing threats to communities. The Hanceville-Riske Creek fire, composed of a number of smaller fires that have joined up, is the largest in the province, at 98,000 hectares.

Robert Turner, assistant deputy minister at Emergency Management BC, said an estimated 45,800 people have been displaced from their homes to date. Of those, 31,935 have registered with the Red Cross.

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