Hope in Williams Lake, B.C. after anxious few days waiting for wildfires

Most small businesses and bank branches have closed in the community because of staff shortages

For days, residents of Williams Lake, B.C., have been preparing for the worst. Told by authorities that fast-moving wildfires nearby could suddenly advance toward the city, people have either fled early or gotten ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

But after lightning storms and gusty winds failed to materialize Wednesday, people are breathing a little more easily, said the mayor.

“It’s been a very tough few days but I’m feeling much more optimistic,” said Mayor Walt Cobb. “The wind has gone down. Some smoke has cleared. I can actually see clouds and sun and blue sky.

“It’s like night and day, but we’re still in danger.”

An evacuation alert was issued for the central Interior community of about 10,000 people on Monday night. Municipal officials warned wildfires from the west could encroach with the predicted winds.

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A new evacuation order was issued for a rural area southwest of Williams Lake Wednesday night when winds shifted, fanning the flames.

Darron Campbell with the Cariboo Regional District said there was less nasty weather than expected, but potentially troublesome winds are forecast to hit the area this weekend as a cold front rolls in.

The winds are set to hit areas that haven’t yet seen a lot of fire activity, he added.

“But certainly we have a window of opportunity I think over the next few days to prepare for any new areas that might become a problem over the weekend,” Campbell said.

British Columbia has declared a state of emergency as nearly 200 wildfires burn across the province, primarily in the central and southern Interior. More than 14,000 people have been displaced and personnel from the Canadian Armed Forces and other provinces have arrived to help.

Cobb said fire suppression crews and about 100 police officers were standing by in the community. Military personnel will assist with mass evacuations if necessary, he said.

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The mayor estimated that about 40 to 60% of residents already left town. About 5,000 people registered as evacuees with the Canadian Red Cross on Tuesday, he said: “Some are afraid. Some have young kids and they don’t want to take the chance. But a lot of it was the smoke.”

The air quality in Williams Lake has been extraordinarily poor. On Monday, the health risk was 36 on a scale that normally only goes to 10, and it was so smoky that Cobb said he couldn’t see two blocks.

A number of people have been arrested for looting in the community. Cobb urged residents to be vigilant and call 911 if they see anything suspicious – which he and his son had to do the other day.

Cobb said he was letting his dog out when he saw three men running from a park across the street from his house.

“I thought, ‘Why would they be running? It’s hot out, it’s smoky,’ and then all of a sudden I saw the flames,” he said.

His son called 911 while Cobb joined together his hoses and sprayed the flames, managing to put it out before fire crews arrived, he said. Cobb said a police dog tracked down the men and they were arrested.

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“I found it really, really hard to believe, how someone could be so stupid, ignorant and irresponsible,” he said.

The RCMP did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the incident.

Cobb said he believed everyone remaining in Williams Lake was ready to evacuate, but he had strong words for anyone considering staying behind. Defying an evacuation order risks the lives of firefighters who may attempt to save you from your burning home, he said.

“What I’m suggesting to people is: if you’re going to stay and you’re not going to evacuate when you’re told to evacuate, make sure you’ve got your dental records so if you burn up in the fire we can identify you,” he said.

Geoff Paynton, director of communications for the Williams Lake emergency operations centre, said there is enough food and gasoline in the city as trucks are getting through. The issue now is staff shortages, he said.

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Charlene Harrison, president of the Williams Lake Chamber of Commerce, said most small businesses and all banks have closed largely because of staff shortages as people in neighbouring communities evacuate.

Harrison, a mortgage specialist for the Royal Bank of Canada, said bank machines have been replenished and are continuing to be monitored so residents who remain in the community can still get cash.

Major grocery stores including Save-On-Foods remain open, although they are struggling with skeletal staffing levels.

Rick Formo, assistant manager of the Save-On-Foods, said trucks carrying inventory have been allowed through the road blocks and a shipment Wednesday has replenished the store’s stock.

– With files from Linda Givetash and Gemma Karstens-Smith


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