CAROL HARRINGTON

RAYLEIGH, B.C. (CP) - Residents in this suburb of Kamloops in southern British Columbia were exhausted but thrilled to return to their homes Monday, although some said the stench of smoke from nearby wildfires meant they wouldn't be staying.

"I'm delighted that we're allowed back home but I won't be staying here," said Joyce Blackburn, who along with 2,800 people in Rayleigh and nearby Heffley Creek, was forced to flee Friday as wildfires that still threaten the region came perilously close.

The smoke has created a haze over this small community where the first house in town is about 20 kilometres from a forest and mountain charred by flames.

Joe Vieira said he's glad to be home but that he can smell the smoke inside his home.

"It sticks to your clothes," he said, adding his first impulse was to water his garden when he returned home.

Residents in Rayleigh were lucky: the blaze didn't jump the highway, meaning they had homes to come back to.

Others in neighbouring communities learned their properties burned to the ground during the worst fire season the area has seen in 50 years.

Some people caught in the fire's paths had no idea whether their property had escaped the flames.

And officials warned so-called fire tourists they weren't welcome in the ravaged areas.

"The last thing they need is to become a tourist attraction," Rod Salem of the Provincial Emergency Program told a news conference.

The lifting of the evacuation order for Raleigh and Heffley Creek came after a series of fires, thought to have been caused by careless people, began racing through parched forest and grasslands about 300 kilometres northeast of Vancouver last week.

The speed and power of the blazes forced B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell to declare a state of emergency in the Thompson-Nicola District covering the biggest fires at McLure and Barriere. It was extended to the whole province after another blaze mushroomed near Falkland, in the Okanagan about 100 kilometres southeast of here.

The fires forced about 10,000 people to flee their homes and destroyed much of the village of Louis Creek, near Barriere, including its sawmill. However, much of Barriere itself appeared to have been spared.

Many people left hurriedly, throwing a few valuables and keepsakes in their vehicles while forced to abandon pets and livestock.

Fire refugees flooded into emergency centres in Kamloops and Vernon but others camped in their cars outside the danger zone, wondering how they would get word when it was safe to go home.

The so-called Strawberry Hill fire threatening Rayleigh was visible from Kamloops.

Thermal images taken Sunday and Monday showed the fires have continued 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.

Almost 2,000 firefighters are battling about 332 fires in the province at a cost of $2.5 million a day. Weather forecasts called for temperatures this week to approach the mid-30-degree range, with no sign of rain.

B.C. residents were pitching in for a massive relief effort that includes donating water, bedding and other essentials for the evacuees.

Neighbouring Alberta was fighting its own battle, with almost 2,000 people forced out of Blairmore and Hillcrest in the Crowsnest Pass area near the southern B.C. border.

British Columbia and neighbouring Alberta are the worst hit during the summer's scorching fire season that has left thousands without a home.

Kamloops RCMP Cpl. Mike Stewart said "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."

Rayleigh residents 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 was still in place for dozens of other areas while fire officials continually assessed weather conditions such as lightning and wind.

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 was not able to turn up a specific cause although it's been determined 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 were also continuing to set off fireworks celebrating the B.C. Day long weekend, despite a ban during the dry conditions. Gaudry warned 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 added.

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.

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

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

Campbell is expected Tuesday to fly over areas where evacuation orders are still in place.

Alberta Premier Ralph Klein and cabinet ministers Mike Cardinal and Dave Coutts were scheduled to tour the Crowsnest Pass area Monday afternoon.

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 19:54 EST