Some B.C. residents return home while others await word on fire conditions

CAROL HARRINGTON

KAMLOOPS, B.C. (CP) - About 2,800 people in the southern British Columbia towns of Rayleigh and Heffley Creek began returning to their homes Monday while residents in dozens of other communities were wondering whether their property also escaped fires ravaging much of the area.

But a spokesman with the Provincial Emergency Program pleaded with so-called fire tourists not to flock to the communities just as relieved residents were getting back to the homes they'd been ordered to evacuate Friday.

"The last thing they need is to become a tourist attraction," Rod Salem told a news conference.

Kamloops RCMP Cpl. Mike Stewart reiterated the message, saying "fire tourism" is causing a grave concern for police as people stop on the sides of highways to take pictures.

"We have people running across the highway, cars parking in some places two deep already," Stewart said.

"We're concerned for the people," he said. "There's thousands of residents who have to go back to Heffley and Rayleigh and we don't want any accidents that will cause us to require manpower to deal with those."

Residents in the Kamloops suburb of Rayleigh have also been asked to boil their water.

Dr. Peter Rieben, medical health officer for the Interior Health Authority, said the top of the town's reservoir was damaged in the fire and water was exposed to air, which makes it difficult to maintain proper chlorine levels.

An evacuation alert is still in place for dozens of other areas while fire officials continually assess weather conditions such as lightning and wind during the worst forest fire season the area has seen in the last 50 years.

Meanwhile, fire crews from B.C. were joining the effort to battle a blaze in neighbouring Washington state, just south of Keremeos, B.C.

The Farewell Creek fire, which has been burning since June 29, has been threatening to cross into Canada.

"We are establishing a fire control line on the 49th parallel in case the (Americans') contingency fails," said Denis Gaudry, a spokesman for the B.C. Forest Service.

He said an investigator probing the Strawberry Hill blaze, near Rayleigh, was not able to determine a specific cause although it's been determined that the fire started near a commonly used rest stop.

The investigator discovered about 60 cigarette butts on the side of the road within about 60 metres of the area, Gaudry said.

People are also continuing to set off fireworks despite a ban during the dry conditions.

Gaudry warned that those caught using fireworks will be fined.

"If we can link a fire back to somebody that's used fireworks illegally they can be held responsible for the full cost of the fire."

He asked retailers selling fireworks to let people know they shouldn't be using them until conditions improve.

"We know that by next Wednesday there's a 30 per cent chance of lightning coming and I don't want to have to use any of our resources that we've got waiting for those lightning events."

In other developments:

- About 104 fire personnel from Ontario left for Kamloops, B.C., on Sunday.

- A total of 559 fire rangers and support staff from Ontario are in B.C., Alberta and Manitoba.

- Ontario has also temporarily donated two water bomber aircraft to B.C., and four to Alberta. The planes are designed to douse the blaze from the air.

- In Quebec, seven forest fires were burning Monday, mainly in the northeastern part of the province. None were near populated areas and the forest fire danger in the province is moderate. All the blazes were caused by lightning.

- Quebec has sent five water bombers to help fight forest fires in B.C. and Manitoba, said Gerard Lacasse, a spokesman for the Quebec Forest Fire Prevention Service. The province has also sent 2,000 fire hoses to Alberta.

- Forest fires were not a major threat in Eastern Canada.

Meanwhile, temperatures in the Kamloops area were expected to reach 30 degrees again Monday, with winds of 20 kilometres an hour. But it could get as hot as 34 degrees later in the week, according to Environment Canada.

Besides the fires themselves, the parched conditions are the main enemy for the hundreds of firefighters battling three major fires around Kamloops that have burned more than 100 square kilometres of tinder-dry forest and grassland.

More than 10,000 people, including residents of Rayleigh and Heffley Creek, were forced from their homes in small towns north of Kamloops.

On Sunday, thermal images revealed that the fires were continuing to grow despite constant aerial bombing with fire retardant by a fleet of 37 aircraft and relentless attack by ground-based firefighters.

The army fighting the blazes is getting support from across Canada, including a contingent of soldiers from Edmonton.

The Vancouver Fire Department said Monday it had agreed to send a fire engine and crew to the Kamloops area, while two volunteer fire crews from suburban Maple Ridge were also heading to the B.C. Interior.

About 1,800 firefighters were battling more than 350 blazes across the province. The largest, the 150-square-kilometre Chilko fire in north-central British Columbia does not threaten any major communities.

The Cedar Hill blaze, southeast of Kamloops near Falkland, was 12 kilometres away from Armstrong, a community on evacuation alert, and is about 8.4 square kilometres in size.

Some residents on the west side of the North Thompson River near McLure and at Little Fort, north of Barriere, were allowed to return home Sunday but told to stay on alert to flee again if conditions changed.

But almost 2,000 people from the towns of Hillcrest and Blairmore remained out of their homes as the Lost Creek fire continued to threaten the mountain communities.

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, who declared a state of emergency around Kamloops on Friday and extended it to the whole province Saturday, was being briefed regularly by telephone. An aide said Sunday the premier would visit the Kamloops region this week.

Campbell spoke to Prime Minister Jean Chretien on Sunday about federal disaster aide but specific help would wait until detailed estimates of the impact of the fires could be prepared.

A spokesman for Defence Minister John McCallum said Sunday aid would be considered under Ottawa's disaster financial-assistance program.

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/4/2003 16:59 EST