Crews Fight Canadian Fires, Some Evacuations End

By Allan Dowd

KAMLOOPS, British Columbia (Reuters) - Exhausted crews battling western Canada's worst wildfire conditions in decades made progress on Monday against some of the largest blazes, allowing some of the estimated 8,500 evacuated people to return to their homes.

Officials stressed that with the weather forecast calling for stronger winds, lightning and no rain, the fight was far from over against the fires burning out of control near Kamloops, about 170 miles (275 km) northeast of Vancouver.

"We're in for the long haul. It's going to be a serious fight," said Kevin Matuga, of the Kamloops Fire Center.

Winds were also hampering the fight against a blaze in the Crowsnest Pass region of southwestern Alberta's Rocky Mountains, which has forced up to 2,000 people to leave.

No deaths have been reported from the fires, but several dozen homes have been destroyed or damaged. Officials estimate 5,000 people are now under evacuation orders with another 5,000 on high alert.

The entire province of British Columbia, about the size of Germany and France combined, is under a state of emergency as dry conditions created what officials said was the most dangerous wildfire conditions in a half century.

The most troublesome blaze near Kamloops was the 20,760-acre (8,400-hectare) McLure fire to the north that forced people to evacuate last week and destroyed a sawmill and up to 75 homes near Louis Creek and Barriere.

Buildings were gutted and burned telephone poles hung from wires, but firefighters said they were able to protect many houses in Barriere.

"This town is going to be hurting for a long time," said Wayne McGregor, one of the few residents allowed to visit his home. "I guess I'm a lucky one, it's still here."

Other evacuees expressed anger that officials have refused to release more details of the damage, even prohibiting journalists from taking photographs of burnt houses in case residents might recognize them.

"I want to go home. I want to know what's going on," Ray McDonald, who like other Barriere residents has been out of his home since Friday.

Nearly 3000 residents of an outlying Kamloops neighborhood were allowed home, but warned to remain on alert should the winds push the fire toward them. Residents of a nearby Indian reservation were also allowed back.

Officials were also watching a fire near Falkland, southeast of Kamloops, that has grown to more than 3,450 acres (1,400 hectares). It has forced several hundred people to evacuate and residents of the town of Armstrong with about 4,250 residents remains on alert, officials said.

Fire crews and Canadian military personnel were being brought in to help tired firefighters in British Columbia and Alberta.



08/04/03 21:07 ET