WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. -Firefighters on the front lines of British Columbia’s raging wildfires are bracing for expected lightning and wind today, with all eyes on Williams Lake where more than 10,000 people are under an evacuation alert.
Residents of the Central Interior community have been told to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, with municipal officials warning that today’s ominous weather forecast could push fires toward the city at a rapid pace.
More than 14,000 people have been displaced by about 200 fires burning across the province, and Bob Turner of Emergency Management BC says the province is preparing for the possibility of mass evacuations.
He says if an evacuation order goes into effect in Williams Lake, people will be sent north on Highway 97 to Prince George, but Canadian Armed Forces aircraft and helicopters are also standing by in case airlifts are necessary.
Turner says the province’s priority is public safety and he encourages people to heed evacuation orders when they are issued.
But the chief of the Bonaparte Indian Band north of Ashcroft says they defied an evacuation order over the weekend and successfully stopped flames from overrunning their reserve.
“My community has some really skilled firefighters, like a lot of First Nations reserves, and they came together and they stopped that wildfire from wiping out that whole community,” Chief Ryan Day said in an interview. “We actually didn’t lose anything other than the guys who had livestock, they lost a bunch of range land.”
He said 60 of the band’s 280 members stayed to fight the fire.
The community doesn’t have a firehall, a new water reservoir hasn’t been connected to their main supply yet and they don’t have a formal emergency response plan in place.
But Day said the experience of the trained forest firefighters in his community and access to heavy equipment from other members’ agricultural businesses contributed to their success.
“We weren’t prepared for it of course because it happened in a blink of an eye, but we snapped into action and everyone did their part,” he said.
Evacuees who are staying in communities from Kamloops to Vancouver can’t return home yet, Day said, as hot spots and a fire near Cache Creek remain a cause for concern.
“In a lot of First Nations communities, some of them are taking a stand like we did. I’m not overstating it when I say if we all evacuated, we would have no houses on this reserve,” Day said.
To the northwest, members of the Tsilhqot’in First Nation are also taking a stand.
Between 250 and 300 volunteers have stayed behind to help protect the four of the nation’s six communities threatened by wildfires and are calling on the government for more support.
Day said the wildfires have hit First Nations people particularly hard, especially those who live in rural communities.
He said volunteers have been exhausted by the last few days, but are keeping busy by putting up sprinklers and snuffing out spot fires.
“We are still working, so we are clearing fuel around structures. If [the fire] does come back down, we want to be here fighting for our homes,” he said.
An emergency operations center has been set up at the band’s hall. (CP and CTV)