BILL GRAVELAND

CROWSNEST PASS, Alta. (CP) - After taking a helicopter tour Monday of an area of the Crowsnest Pass that has been devastated by fire, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein promised there will be no reduction in the resources needed to fight the blaze.

"The resources that are here now will stay here," Klein said. "As a matter of fact they will be increased if they have to be."

Wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots and a golf shirt, and accompanied by David Coutts, minister of Government Services, and Mike Cardinal, minister of Sustainable Resource Development, Klein said the timing of the fires has been lucky, in a way.

"Had this fire occurred last year at this particular time we would have been up that proverbial creek without a paddle," he said. "At this time last year we were fighting fires involving in excess of 500,000 hectares and this time we're fighting fires involving about 43,000 hectares so we're actually involved in firefighting to the tune of less than one-tenth of where we were last year."

Klein said he spoke to residents who were staying at a nearby evacuation centre, and promised them that compensation will be assessed after the fire is contained.

"I really feel for the people who have been evacuated," the premier said.

"I can understand the frustration of some who have been evacuated but I can also say the regional municipality has bent over backward to make sure those who have been evacuated are treated in comfort."

The 2,000 residents evacuated from this scenic pass in the Rocky Mountains of southwestern Alberta watched and waited for new developments Monday in the battle against the giant fire that has threatened two small communities.

The day got off to a promising start with overcast skies and cooler temperatures. The heavy smoke that had engulfed the area for several days also seemed to have cleared a bit.

"The relatively humidity is up as well, but . . . we're not expecting any (rain) today," said Norman Brownlee, provincial fire information officer.

"There was no significant observed growth (in the fire) overnight. We've had no loss of any structures, any homes, in the area. Work is continuing on laying sprinkler systems in the area, and a number of homes in the Hillcrest area have had foam retardant placed on them."

About 900 people in the mining town of Hillcrest were ordered out Saturday. On Sunday, they were joined by 1,000 people living in the southeast section of Blairmore.

Fire information officer Brydon Ward said crews feel they have achieved some success.

"We worked very hard to hit the head of this fire as it approached the community of Hillcrest (on Sunday)," he said. "The fire intensity laid down a lot and so the fire crews were really able to do some good work in there.

"We're finally starting to see these are called good days for firefighters because they can see what they've done at the end of the day and the fires are not making big runs."

Crowsnest Pass Mayor John Irwin said the fire will have a significant effect on the region.

""It's going to be another one of our disasters .*.*. not to the extent of the Frank Slide or the Hillcrest Mine disaster but it is truly a disaster in the area."

The out-of-control blaze - measuring 180 square kilometres - remained about three kilometres southwest of Blairmore and half a kilometre from Hillcrest on Monday.

Brownlee said 840 firefighters were battling the Lost Creek fire, along with 20 helicopters, three air tankers, 38 bulldozers.

Ontario pitched in on Sunday by lending support staff and four water bombers - designed to douse the blaze from the air - to Alberta.

The province had 35 fires on Monday, down 10 from the day before. Seven were listed as out of control and the rest were either under control or being held.

"In some areas, we were getting rain in the northern part of the province," Brownlee said of the reduced number of fires. "A lot of it is simply the work of the crews."

A new fire on the northwest corner of Maligne Lake forced the evacuation of about 500 visitors and staff from the popular tourist destination. Parks Canada spokesman Ifan Thomas said by Monday morning, the fire was not yet contained but there were 15 crew, two helicopters and two water bombers working on it.

Thomas also said the Syncline Ridge fire had been contained in the back country of Jasper National Park, and facilities in the Miette Hot Springs and Pocahontas had been reopened.

Two small wildfires caused by lightning had forced the evacuation of about 500 people from campgrounds 50 kilometres southwest of Sundre in central Alberta. By Monday, one of those fires was listed as contained while the other was still out of control.

In neighbouring British Columbia, more than 10,000 people have been evacuated because of the threat posed by more than 350 fires, and the government has extended a state of emergency to cover the entire province.

Officials are keying on four blazes in the south - three major wildfires near Kamloops and another in the west Okanagan Valley.

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/4/2003 20:01 EST