Offers of accommodation, supplies and entertainment pour in for B.C. fire evacuees
Cars and trucks drive though the thick smoke caused by wildfires just outside of Kamloops, B.C., on Sunday, July 16, 2017. Over a hundred wildfires are burning throughout British Columbia, forcing thousands of residents to be evacuated or placed on evacuation alert. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Camille Bains, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, July 17, 2017 6:55AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, July 17, 2017 10:41PM EDT
SURREY, B.C. - The threat of an encroaching wildfire weighed on Britanni Erlandson's mind for days yet when the evacuation order came, she wasn't ready to leave her home in Williams Lake, B.C.
“You think you're all ready until it comes down to it. You feel panic, you don't know what to do,” she said, adding her husband and their seven-year-old daughter joined a caravan of vehicles Saturday after a wind-fuelled flare-up of a fire near their town.
“It was very busy. A two-hour trip took eight hours, just bumper to bumper. Everyone was calm,” she said Monday at a reception centre for evacuees set up in Surrey, B.C., one of about a dozen the province.
At least 40,000 people have been forced from their homes by nearly 160 wildfires in central and southern British Columbia. Another 17,000 have been told they need to prepare to leave with little notice.
Erlandson's family is now staying at her aunt's home in Maple Ridge, their third move in two days.
“We were lucky,” she said. “I know people who've been sleeping in their cars or sleeping in tents.”
Erlandson said she was thinking about friends who'd left Fort McMurray, Alta., after a wildfire destroyed their home last year, only to arrive in Williams Lake, B.C., and now be forced out of there as well because of the threat of a wildfire.
“They didn't want to go back and they've been fighting with an insurance company but thankfully this time they didn't have to drive through a fire.”
Erlandson said her mother's house was destroyed by the fire about 13 kilometres outside of Williams Lake but she's grateful everyone escaped in time.
Her only regret is not bringing her daughter Bella's teddy bear along, Erlandson said, adding the family also left behind a hamster named Skunk.
“I don't know what she's more upset about, the teddy bear or the hamster,” Erlandson said as the family waited to register so they can get financial assistance from the province.
Deputy fire chief Mark Griffioen, the emergency planner for the City of Surrey, gave Mayor Linda Hepner a tour of the arena where 108 cots have been set up.
He said everyone who has registered at the centre so far has a place to stay but it's early in the fire season.
Hepner said she's proud of the welcome her city has shown to people who've been forced from their homes.
“I'm so grateful that the community is so caring and so willing to step up to the plate for people who are really so, so traumatized over this fire,” she said.
Officials in British Columbia said Monday they are beginning the difficult process of notifying those who have lost homes in the out-of-control wildfires that have prompted a provincial state of emergency.
Cariboo Regional District chairman Al Richmond said teams have gained access to areas where houses and other buildings have been destroyed northwest of 100 Mile House.
“We can start to phone the residents who have had losses,” he said.
Richmond said crews had managed to keep the flames near Williams Lake in check about five kilometres northwest of the community.
Residents from the nearby Village of Cache Creek who were rushed from their homes last week by fire were told Monday that they would be allowed to turn home on Tuesday.
Officials with the Thompson-Nicola Regional District said that while the 520-square-kilometre Ashcroft fire continues to grow and burn out of control, the threat to Cache Creek has diminished.
Canada's public safety minister said the federal government is helping in the firefighting effort in every way possible.
Speaking in Pilot Butte, Sask., Ralph Goodale said fire crews have been sent in from numerous provinces.
“So Saskatchewan is contributing to the effort as well as Alberta, and virtually every other province right across the country to the Maritimes. So Canadians have rallied together here.”
More than 3,000 staff, including firefighters, support staff and 450 personnel brought in from other provinces, are hard at work, said BC Wildfire Service chief information officer Kevin Skrepnek.
Fifty personnel from Australia are set to arrive Wednesday. Skrepnek said they are not frontline firefighters, but highly trained specialists and support staff working in difficult-to-fill positions.
Skrepnek said there is potential for lightning on Wednesday and thunderstorms on Thursday.
“We have a bit of a double-edged sword there,” he said. “Obviously the rain would be welcome, but that could likely bring some lightning with it.”
The Tl'etinqox First Nation, which defied an evacuation order, said in a statement Monday that its community still stood after strong winds turned the wildfire towards it.
Crews of firefighters, 125 of them First Nations, fought back to divert the fast-moving inferno, the First Nation said.
“Our community would not be standing today had we heeded the RCMP order,” Chief Joe Alphonse said.
- With files from Laura Kane in Vancouver