By Allan Dowd

KAMLOOPS, British Columbia (Reuters) - Emergency crews battling the worst fire season in British Columbia for half a century made progress on Sunday against blazes that have forced some 8,500 people to evacuate but warned they still need nature's help.

Winds that had fueled three large fires near Kamloops, about 170 miles (275 km) northeast of Vancouver, have died down somewhat, but heavy smoke hampered efforts to get firefighters and aircraft into some areas, officials said.

All of British Columbia -- about the size of France and Germany combined -- is under a state of emergency. About 80 Canadian military personnel are being brought in to assist more than 700 civilian firefighters already in the Kamloops area.

Parts of south-central British Columbia have not seen a major rainfall in weeks and fire officials say the conditions for wildfires are the worst in recent memory. More than 300 fires are burning across the province, although most are small.

Denis Gaudry of the British Columbia Forest Service in Kamloops said lower winds on Saturday and early on Sunday allowed crews to make a good start against the three big fires, but he added: "They are not under control."

No rain is forecast until at least the end of the week, said Al Beaver, a fire control specialist.

"In all my years in this business I've never witnessed, never even heard of, a fire being controlled and extinguished without the cooperation of nature," Beaver said. "Right now nature is holding all the trump cards."

Local emergency officials estimated the total number of evacuations in the area at about 8,500 people.

A few of the estimated 3,500 people forced out by the 20,760-acre (8,400-hectare) McLure fire north of Kamloops have been allowed to return home, but officials say it is impossible to predict when the evacuation will end.

That fire, sparked on Wednesday by a discarded cigarette, has already destroyed a sawmill in the hamlet of Louis Creek and 75 homes in that community and the nearby town of Barriere.

HEAVY SMOKE IN THE AIR

Residents of Kamloops awoke on Sunday to a cloud of smoke over the city that was thick enough to make the sun look like a blood-red dot as it rose over the nearby mountains.

Although the smoke appeared to lighten during the day, a giant plume erupted during the late afternoon, sending smoke rising thousands of feet (hundreds of meters) into the air.

Most of the smoke was produced by a fire that has grown to about 8,325 acres (3,370 hectares) in the hills overlooking the city. Between 3,000 and 4,000 Kamloops residents have been evacuated because of the blaze, according to local media.

An 2,075-acre (840-hectare) fire near Falkland, southeast of Kamloops, has destroyed at least one home and forced the evacuation of 1,000 people. The town of Armstrong with about 4,250 residents has been put on high alert, officials said.

Alberta is also struggling with forest fires, including a 44,480-acre (18,000-hectare) blaze in the Crowsnest Pass area of southwestern Alberta that has forced the evacuation of 1,000 residents near the community of Hillcrest.

Fueled by hot, dry winds, the blaze pushed within a third of a mile (0.5 km) of the vacation town on Saturday, but was held back by fire crews and a spattering of rain.

Meanwhile, two adjacent fires near the town of Sundre, Alberta, northwest of Calgary, forced the evacuation of about 500 people, and closed nearby campgrounds on what is normally the busiest camping weekend of the year.



08/03/03 20:42 ET