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British Columbia B.C. wildfires dampened by cool weather before Australian help

BC Wildfire Services briefs fire crews from Ontario at the Sechelt forest fire on B.C.'s Sunshine coast July 9, 2015.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Australian wildfire specialists were expected to arrive in British Columbia on Monday, just as residents of a lakefront community threatened by an aggressive fire were finally allowed to return home.

The Puntzi Lake fire, about 130 kilometres west of Williams Lake in B.C.'s central Interior, has destroyed buildings on four properties, including a hunting-and-fishing resort and two homes.

It is one of 221 active wildfires burning across the province, said provincial fire information officer Navi Saini, adding rain and cooler weather on the weekend may have helped decrease the wildfire situation.

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She said a provincewide campfire ban remains in effect.

Karen Powell of the Cariboo Fire Centre said about 12 millimetres of rain fell on the Puntzi Lake fire over the weekend, allowing crews to attack the fire's edge with heavy machinery. She said the fire is now about 80 square kilometres in size and 30 per cent contained.

Al Richmond of the Cariboo Regional District said an evacuation order was lifted for 30 properties on the lake's southern shore, but the order remains effective for 60 other properties.

"Things are looking better, but we're cautiously optimistic," Richmond said. "A couple of days of cool weather would really help us but a return to hot, dry weather and we get winds again, then we are concerned."

Richmond said people who were returning home Monday do not live in the same area where the buildings burned and will remain on evacuation alert.

The smoke has cleared but the homes are without power, though BC Hydro was trying to restore it, he said.

Saini said the Australian fire crews were expected to arrive in the province Monday afternoon.

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"For the most part, these 50 personnel are highly trained specialists more at the command and co-ordination side of things," she said, adding they will not be actively fighting fires.

Sixteen of them will help co-ordinate fire camps, she said, and the others will perform jobs such as co-ordinating helicopters and analyzing fire behaviour.

"They will be briefed in Chilliwack on Tuesday and Wednesday this week before being sent out into the field."

Last year, 73 Australians assisted wildfire efforts, costing B.C. about $2.5 million, she said.

"We have a reciprocal agreement in place, so we in British Columbia have also offered help to Australia in previous busy fire seasons."

Since April 1, the BC Wildfire Service has recorded 1,073 fires that have burned about 283,500 hectares and cost about $108 million to fight.

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In contrast, 477 fires had burned 24,000 hectares at a cost of $44 million at the same time last year, Saini said.

About 2,500 people are currently battling wildfires, including 1,000 contract personnel, along with two amphibious aircraft from Ontario, she said.

The long-term weather forecast is calling for widespread showers in many southern and central areas of the province, she said.

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