B.C. firefighters battle ‘extreme fire behaviour’ as blaze approaches town

B.C. firefighters battle 'extreme fire behaviour' as blaze approaches town
The Donnie Creek wildfire burns in an area between Fort Nelson and Fort St. John, B.C. in this 2023 handout photo provided by the BC Wildfire Service.

Firefighters in British Columbia are battling “extreme fire behaviour” in the northeastern part of the province as a growing out-of-control blaze burns a few kilometres from Fort Nelson, B.C.

Cliff Chapman, BC Wildfire’s director of operations, said calmer winds Sunday night and Monday morning prevented the Parker Lake wildfire from spreading into the town, although it had grown to 53 square kilometres in size by Monday.

Chapman said forecasts called for winds to pick up again within a few days, and while their groundcrews focus on protecting structures, helicopters and bulldozers were being used on the fire line.

“It’s important to note that with the conditions and the dryness of the northeast right now, we’re seeing extreme fire behaviour, and so ground operations are often compromised,” Chapman said Monday, noting 17 helicopters have been assigned to the area.

“Our focus really is about trying to do structure protection, structure defence, and reinforce our guards on those fires using heavy equipment and air support. So, it’s a joint effort, air and ground. You really need it to be a joint effort on any fire that has this type of fire behaviour.”

B.C. Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma said about 4,700 people have been ordered to leave Fort Nelson and the surrounding area since the fire started on Friday.

On Monday, the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality and the Fort Nelson First Nation expanded mandatory evacuation orders to a wider swath of northeastern B.C.

While the majority of those ordered to evacuate the area have left, Ma said a small, unspecified number of residents won’t leave, despite the threat of westerly winds blowing the Parker Lake fire onto their properties.

She said residents in the evacuation zone need to leave immediately for their own safety.

“It is an incredibly, incredibly difficult thing to leave your home when you are asked to evacuate due to wildfire, due to flood, due to any emergency reason,” Ma said.

“I completely understand how this kind of stressful situation would cause people to wonder whether or not they want to stay,” Ma said. “We are talking about people’s entire lives in some of these homes.”

The blaze is one of several burning across the West from Manitoba to B.C., while smoke from the fires has prompted special air quality statements in the northern half of Alberta and part of Saskatchewan.

Environment Canada said winds near Fort Nelson on Tuesday will become westerly reaching 20 kilometres an hour in speed, with gusts forecasted to reach 40 kilometres an hour.

The forecaster said there is no significant rain in the forecast for northeast B.C. through to Sunday, May 19.

Chapman said the fire situation has been worsened by dry conditions over the winter, which has led to a number of holdover fires buried in the ground lasting through the end of last year and re-emerging this spring.

While the Parker Lake fire is classified as human-caused, two other out-of-control wildfires marking the evacuation zone’s boundary in northeastern B.C. are holdovers, and Chapman said there’s no doubt that last year’s record-breaking fire season has “amplified” the fire threat this spring.

“We planned for the holdover fires. That’s a big reason why we sent an incident management team up to Fort Nelson ahead of this Parker Lake fire, knowing that this cold front would likely expose where these holdover fires were still carrying heat, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Ma said reception centres for evacuees have been set up in Fort St. John, Dawson Creek, Chetwynd and Prince George, and accommodation remained available Monday to people escaping the Fort Nelson fire who need it.

A fire in northwest Manitoba is singeing the community of Cranberry Portage and has forced about 550 residents from their homes.

The blaze came within 1,500 metres of the community as residents were told to escape over the weekend, although reduced winds have allowed crews to hold the blaze to about 300 square kilometres.

Earl Simmons, Manitoba’s wildfire director, said that in the 40 years he’s been working with wildfires, he’s never seeing a fire that moved so quickly.

“It was growing two kilometres (an hour) on the head, the front of the fire.”

Light rain is expected to play a supporting role in the wildfire outside the oilsands hub of Fort McMurray, Alta.

The fire is about 16 kilometres from the city of 68,000 that was overrun by a blaze in 2016 and 2,400 homes were damaged.

An evacuation alert went out Friday for the city as well as Saprae Creek Estates, Gregoire Lake Estates, Fort McMurray First Nation and Anzac.

Structure protections were being set up as precautions in a residential area outside Fort McMurray and the First Nation, while heavy equipment was working on the northeast side of the fire.

The forecast is for increasing wind for another fire burning near Grande Prairie, Alta.

The 14-square-kilometre wildfire is just four kilometres from the community of Teepee Creek and is burning out of control.

Parts of the rural area were evacuated Friday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2024.

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