VANCOUVER, B.C. – As British Columbia’s sweltering heat wave fades, hundreds of people living in the province’s Interior who have been kept from their homes by nearby wildfires are being allowed to return.
More than 360 residents who were under evacuation orders because of the Terrace Mountain fire, north of Kelowna and near Fintry, will be allowed to return Thursday morning.
But they’ve been told not to get too comfortable.
“Those allowed to return will remain on evacuation alert and must be prepared, as they may have to leave the area again without much notice,” said Bruce Smith, an information officer with the Regional District of Central Okanagan.
“These areas are the farthest from the still active Terrace Mountain fire and incident command has recommended to the emergency operation centre that residents can return home under evacuation alert.”
The Terrace Mountain blaze covers about 80 square kilometres. The fire is 40 per cent contained and is about one kilometre away from the nearest homes.
Residents of Fintry have been evacuated on two different occasions, once being told to pick up and leave just two days after returning home.
While hundreds have been told they can go back, about 2,150 also affected by the Terrace Mountain blaze still cannot. An additional 2,200 remain on evacuation alert and could be forced out at a moment’s notice.
Fire information officer Mitch Miller said crews were able to hold the Terrace Mountain fire on Wednesday.
“We’re continuing to work on our fireguards and I guess if the fire’s not spreading, that makes it a successful day,” he said.
“Fire crews are also conducting some burnoff operations to strengthen fireguards on the east and southeast flanks.”
Meanwhile, in Brookmere, south of Merritt, about 50 residents have been told they, too, will be allowed to return to their homes.
The residents were forced to flee on Sunday and the Brookmere fire is estimated at about 21 square kilometres. That fire is 30 per cent contained.
Alyson Couch, a fire information officer with the B.C. Forest Service, described Wednesday as a very good one for fire crews.
“We’re seeing positives, we’re seeing a progression in containing the fires,” Couch said.
“We’re not seeing as much aggressive behaviour on these big fires as we were seeing.”
Though substantial progress is being made, Couch stressed it’s too early to declare victory.
“Anything could happen,” she said, adding that a windstorm could undo days of hard work.
But Isabelle Jacques, a fire information officer stationed at the Mount McLean blaze near Lillooet, said she and fire officials at the scene can see light at the end of the tunnel.
“We are making good progress,” she said. “We had a successful burnoff operation on the east flank. That’s above the town of Lillooet and it was our final burnoff operation on the east flank.”
Jerry Sucharyna, an information officer with the District of Lillooet, said no decision has yet been made on when more than 2,000 residents evacuated from Lillooet because of the Mount McLean fire can return.
“We will let everybody know as soon as we know,” Sucharyna said.
“We want to get it out into the community and say it’s all over. But the last thing we want to do is have everybody come back (to the evacuation centre in Kamloops).”
The Mount McLean fire is 38 square kilometres and is not contained. It has sat one kilometre outside the Lillooet city limits for several days.
Sucharyna conceded some of the Lillooet residents are itching to return home.
“Everybody wants to go home. Who wouldn’t want to?” he said.
“But considering that forestry is not recommending it at this time, that’s not something that we’re entertaining.”
Dan Immel, a pilot with Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters, has been dropping water and flame retardent on the Mount McLean blaze since arriving at the site earlier this week.
Immel said from up above, Lillooet appears to be doing just fine.
“I don’t think it’s going to be much longer before they let folks back in, would be my guess,” Immel said.
“The threat to Lillooet is probably – they’re probably in good shape – I’d say it’s minimal right now.”
Immel described being part of the effort to save homes in Lillooet as very rewarding. And, of course, the job has its perks.
“It’s kind of like a giant video game,” he said.
“When we do pick our target, it’s kind of gratifying if you get it right to watch the fire be snuffed out. It can be quite fun, actually.”
Columbia Helicopters has sent two of its aircraft to B.C. to help fight the wildfires.
Jeremiah Louis, who spent eight days fighting the Terrace Mountain blaze, said the intense physical experience can sometimes prove too much to handle.
“There have been reports of some firefighters having heat exhaustion,” he said.
“You get a little too into your work and you forget to have one or two bottles of water and it starts right from there.”
Louis said direct sunlight and high winds can dehydrate firefighters in no time.
The 26-year-old starts his day by drinking three or four bottles of water and will down another dozen by the time his shift is just half-over.
Louis said the importance of the job, and the stress that can come with saving homes, isn’t lost on the people working the front lines.
“Going into the day, going up to the fire line, you know that this is the situation and the results that we need to have are containment and control so people can go home,” he said.
Trevor Mitchell is a helicopter pilot for Revelstoke, B.C.-based Arrow Helicopters, which has deployed three helicopters to help fight wildfires in the southeast part of the province.
Mitchell, 36, said there is a real sense of pride that comes with his line of work.
“Water-bucketing on a long line, that in itself is an acquired skill,” he said.
“Also, you’re dealing with the challenges of associated weather, fire-induced winds, turbulence, reduced visibility.”