Posted 08-03-2003 at 08:35:27
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Thousands flee B.C. fires
By CAROL HARRINGTON AND TIFFANY CRAWFORD
Raging fire forces evacuation from Hillcrest, Alta.
1,000 people ordered out of Crowsnest Pass, Alta.
KAMLOOPS, B.C. (CP) - Kerry Byspalko, who didn't pack as fire loomed closer to his home, is one of hundreds of southern B.C. residents packed into an evacuation centre here Saturday with little more than the clothes on their backs.
"Last I heard, my house was a pile of rubble, burnt to the ground," said Byspalko of Barriere, B.C., about 50 kilometres north of here.
The town of about 3,500 was one of the biggest casualties in a series of wildfires that has swept through the region's parched mountains in the last three days and forced about 10,000 residents from their homes.
Byspalko fled Thursday morning before the official evacuation order was given, arriving here with only his clothes and the car that helped him escape.
"I've got absolutely nothing," said the 36-year-old forestry worker as he joined others looking for government help. "It's kind of a haze at the moment."
More than 75 homes, 150 outbuildings and three businesses were reported destroyed in the McLure-Barriere fire, and there were disputed reports Barriere's sawmill had also burned.
The figures include devastation in Louis Creek, a small First Nations village south of Barriere, where 60 homes went up in flames, and it did lose its sawmill.
"While it's tragic and tough, with some significant personal losses, at the end of the day we hope to be all the better for it," said Mike Harkies, B.C. operations manager for Tolko Industries, noting the company coped when it's Merritt, B.C., mill was destroyed previously.
The rampant fires - the most destructive the province has seen in 50 years - prompted B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell to extend a state of emergency to the entire province. He first initiated the rare measure Friday to deal with fires north of Kamloops.
So far, two fires in the Kamloops area have devoured 100 square kilometres of tinder-dry forests and grasslands.
The McLure-Barriere fire was apparently started by a discarded cigarette, said Denis Gaudry of the B.C. Forest Service. The area's other two fires at Rayleigh and near Falkland are also thought to have human causes.
A new fire detected early Saturday near Falkland, 60 kilometres southeast of Kamloops, forced more than 2,000 to flee their hobby farms and acreages on the west end of the Okanagan valley near Armstrong.
It grew to 15 square kilometres and closed Highway 97C at the town of Falkland, a rescue official said.
Also on Saturday, another fire that had been burning out of control for almost two weeks on Alberta's southern border with British Columbia forced 800 people out of their homes in Hillcrest, a historic mining town.
They joined more than 100 people from Hillcrest who have been out of their homes for a week.
Damage from the 66-square-kilometre McLure-Barriere fire, 50 kilometres north of Kamloops, remains hard to determine.
"It's very difficult right now - because of the conditions and the smoke - to get these assessments done," said Cathi Piazza, a spokeswoman for the B.C. Provincial Emergency Program.
Many residents from the area anxiously sought information at the Kamloops emergency centre about whether their homes have burned to the ground.
"I'm hoping it's still standing," said Shirley Ross, who has lived in Barriere for more than 50 years. "It's devastating. I can't imagine if it's not there."
Joe Davies, the president of the local Industrial Wood and Allied Workers Canada, a forestry union, said the cost of replacing the mill at Louis Creek could be $40 million to $50 million.
However Davies maintained there's no indication the mill at Barriere had been destroyed.
Evacuation centres were set up in Kamloops, Vernon and 100 Mile House. About 1,900 people had registered by Saturday morning, the Provincial Emergency Program said.
The province is doling out financial assistance through its emergency social services to evacuees.
Each person is eligible to receive $150 for new clothing. Adults and youth are receiving $42.50 for meals each day and children are getting half that amount. As well, families are getting between $70 and $100 for a hotel room.
B.C. businesses also set up a "Fire Aid" drive, asking people do donate blankets, water, sleeping bags, pillows and light clothing for evacuees at dropoff points at London Drugs stores in the Vancouver area and B.C. Interior.
Volunteers were also working with Kamloops SPCA workers to try to rescue pets and livestock left behind by fleeing residents.
In ordering expansion of the state of emergency, Campbell said there now were 353 active fires in the province, including 25 new ones ignited in the 24 hours between Friday and Saturday afternoons. These fires had torched a total of 380 square kilometres.
A haze of thick, grey smoke clings to many mountainsides. Yet vacationers continue to flock to the area, apparently intent on enjoying their B.C. Day long weekend.
The B.C. fires' first reported casualty, a 53-year-old man from Barriere, was in intensive care Saturday in a Kamloops hospital with burns to his face and upper body.
"Apparently he was helping a neighbour hose down his house when his clothes caught on fire," said Dave Poulin, a spokesman for the Interior Health Authority.
The man, who was in critical but stable condition, was transferred to Vancouver for treatment later Saturday, Poulin said.
Evacuation alerts were issued Saturday morning for several small communities near Kamloops, as well as the Sun Peaks resort, about 25 kilometres northeast of this city of 77,000.
Residents of the Kamloops suburb of Rayleigh were ordered out Friday after a small fire on a mountainside quickly mushroomed to 20 square kilometres.
About 85 soldiers from the Edmonton-based Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry were deployed to Merritt, south of Kamloops, on Saturday night in response to a B.C. government request earlier in the day.
The troops will support firefighters, allowing them to concentrate on emerging or unstable fires, the Department of National Defence said in a press release.
Among those evacuated from the Falkland-area fire were 30 clients and two staff members from the Round Lake Treatment Centre for drug and alcohol abuse.
"I'm worried and I'm concerned but I'm happy the clients and staff are safe," said Jami Tonasket, the centre's executive director.
Evacuees unable to stay with family and friends were being billeted in Vernon by the Red Cross.
Don Blakley, a manager with Vernon search and rescue, said some residents who were told to leave their homes refused to go, and were frantically spraying their property with garden hoses.
"We can't drag anybody out of their house," he said. "Those who insisted on staying were asked the names of their next of kin," Blakley said.
"When they ask why, we point out the reality that it is entirely possible that they could end up being killed," he said. "Some of them then change their minds."
B.C. Solicitor General Rich Coleman, in charge of the Provincial Emergency Program, would not rule out disaster assistance for Barriere residents, adding Ottawa had been informed of the request. But he said they will have to see just how bad the town has been hit.
The impact of British Columbia's summer of flame so far easily eclipses the most recent bad year - 1998.
That August, a wildfire destroyed 20 houses and 15 farm buildings in Salmon Arm, about 90 kilometres east of Kamloops, forcing the evacuation of 7,000 residents. Armed forces reserves were called out to help fight that fire.
This week's fires have cut power to 8,000-9,000 homes from Kamloops east to the Alberta border, including McLure Barriere, McBride and Valemount.
B.C. Hydro spokesman Stephen Bruyneel said the utility lost about six kilometres of transmission line near McLure and power won't be restored for at least a week.
"We're looking for backup generators across the province and we're looking to hook up some independent power producers," he said. "So, based on the success of those two things, we may be able to get the critical backup power up within the next few days."
Telus Corp. said about 100 workers had begun emergency operations to restore phone service to about 5,000 customers in the region. Spokesman Nick Culo said it was hoped service would be restored by midnight Saturday.
"We had to make sure that the area was safe first, but obviously getting the phone service back up is a priority for us," he said.
Like the McLure-Barriere blaze, about half of the B.C. fires have been caused by people, B.C. forest protection officials estimate.
About 1,800 firefighters were battling the flames at a cost exceeding $2.5 million a day.
While it hasn't threatened large communities, the province's biggest fire is in the north, a 150-square-kilometre inferno northeast of Chilko Lake. There have also been evacuations in the community Scum Lake, northwest of the fire.
Meanwhile, crews in neighbouring Washington state were beginning to counterattack a 310-square-kilometre blaze just south of Keremeos, B.C., which has been threatening to cross into Canada.
The Farewell Creek fire has been burning since June 29 but lower temperatures are allowing firefighters, including a 20-member Canadian crew, back to the front lines, an official said.