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    Default B.C. premier describes wildfire devastation as 'awful and awesome'

    CAROL HARRINGTON

    KAMLOOPS, B.C. (CP) - B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell described a charred village obliterated by a wildfire as "awful and awesome" after getting a bird's eye view of the area Tuesday.

    Campbell, on a one-day visit to southern British Columbia, flew through smoke-filled skies in a helicopter to look at the effects of one aggressive wildfire that started last Wednesday apparently by a discarded cigarette.

    The premier expressed amazement at the extent of the damage and the fire's speed as it annihilated the village of Louis Creek, about 50 kilometres north of Kamloops.

    "There's virtually no structures left standing," he said. "The mill is a flat chunk of land. You can see sort of charred areas where something may have once been and you guess what it once was."

    "It's like a vacuum sucked the life out of the area." Moving north, the blaze started in the town of McLure, whipped through Louis Creek, then around Barriere, forcing thousands of residents from their homes.

    After flying over the area, Campbell peppered officials with questions about firefighting techniques.

    His chopper landed at a fire-fighting camp to greet arriving Canadian soldiers, the first of more than 100 brought in from Edmonton to reinforce about 1,000 firefighters in the region. He shook their hands and thanked them for coming.

    "We can all thank the grace of God that we have not lost any life," he said. "That's really amazing when you see the extent of the fires and you see how rapidly they've grown."

    Firefighters had apparently started to turn the tide in their fight against the three wildfires threatening communities around Kamloops.

    "Last night there was minimal fire behaviour and crews made good progress," said fire information officer Kevin Matuga.

    Thick, grey smoke blocked the sun where firefighters battled the blaze near Barriere, causing temperatures to dip to 19 Celsius, compared to 32 Celsius, 60 kilometres south in Kamloops.

    "A couple more smoky days would be just great," said Brian Kempf of B.C. Forest Services.

    But the smoky haze caused a visibility problem for firefighters and aircraft attacking the blazes, with flames reaching heights of 100 metres high, and have devoured more than 160 square kilometres of mostly forested land.

    Almost half of the estimated 2,000 firefighters at work in the province were battling fires in the Kamloops and Okanagan areas.

    The news was less encouraging from the Crowsnest Pass region of southwestern Alberta, where damp weather gave way to rising temperatures Tuesday.

    Firefighters there were fighting a massive fire threatening the mountain towns of Blairmore and Hillcrest, where the 180-square-kilometre Lost Creek fire has forced almost 2,000 people from their homes.

    In British Columbia, Matuga said the Strawberry Hill fire just north of Kamloops, which had grown to 42 from 37 square kilometres, was 90 per cent contained but there was still the possibility of spot fires outside the fire lines.

    About 4,000 residents of Rayleigh and Heffley Creek, just north of Kamloops, threatened by that fire were allowed to return home Monday but told to remain on evacuation alert.

    There were conflicting figures given for the number of people still under evacuation order.

    Officials in Kamloops said earlier 3,500 people remained out of their homes. But Cathi Piazza, a spokeswoman for the B.C. Forest Service, said 7,200 still had not returned home.

    No explanation was given for the discrepancy but Piazza said estimates were based on population figures and officials had no indication how many people were actually there at the time.

    At the peak on Sunday, more than 10,000 people had fled their homes from fires near Falkland, Rayleigh, McLure and Barriere.

    Campbell made a brief visit to a makeshift disaster centre set up for evacuees in Kamloops.

    "They are incredibly patient, they want to be home. . . and the ones I talked to understand what we are doing," he said. "And just to show you the spirit of these people two of the people who were there invited me to the fall fair on Sept. 1."

    The premier warned that firefighters are nowhere near putting down their hoses and shovels.

    "We still haven't managed to contain even 50 per cent of the fires we're dealing with and it's going to be a long-time, long-haul process," he said.

    Matuga said the Cedar Hills fire near Falkland, in the Okanagan Valley southeast of Kamloops, was 60 per cent contained, allowing for the return of 280 residents Monday night. Its size was estimated at about 15.6 square kilometres.

    The McLure-Barriere blaze, last estimated at about 110 square kilometres, destroyed dozens of homes and several businesses, including a sawmill at Louis Creek, since it began Wednesday. About 200 people worked at the sawmill site.

    Campbell declared a state of emergency for the region Friday. He extended it Saturday to cover all of British Columbia as the province dealt with more than 300 fires.

    Campbell spoke with Prime Minister Jean Chretien on the weekend about getting federal disaster aid.

    "He said they obviously have the federal disaster programs, which are available," he said. "We have simply notified Ottawa that we think we will be coming to them for some assistance.

    "We've also been very clear with them we can't even start to begin to estimate that's on the ground until we can actually get in and assess that."

    It's costing between $2.5 million and $3 million a day to fight the fires in the province, Campbell said.

    Damage-assessment teams had begun going into the burned-out areas Monday, said emergency official Rod Salem. But authorities would not release information about the damage, nor allow media images, until individual property owners were told their homes were still standing to avoid them learning about it from news reports, he said.

    Counsellors will be on hand to help people told they've lost their homes, as well specialists on issues such as insurance, financial assistance and debris disposal, said Greg Toma, an emergency official.

    However, B.C. Solicitor General Rich Coleman warned those who lost their homes to the fires but didn't have insurance should not expect a B.C. government handout.

    "In the fire that was in Salmon Arm in 1998, the government didn't pay for uninsured homes," said Coleman, who accompanied Campbell on his tour.

    Heffley Creek and Rayleigh residents returned to homes overlooking charred forests and mountainsides with the stench of smoke still in their houses.

    "It sticks to your clothes," said Joe Veira, adding his first impulse was to water his garden.

    While some residents nearer Kamloops and Falkland went home, only a few people from the communities further north got the green light.

    People crowded into evacuation centres in Kamloops and elsewhere. Some were given hotel and motel rooms while others camped on cots in school gyms or even in their cars.

    Many evacuees expressed frustration about the lack of information about their homes, especially with police restricting access for those anxious to see if their homes are still standing.

    "I understand why people are going through that," Campbell said. "But you don't want to start distracting people from taking care of the fires and making sure they are safe."

    There were hints of tension as police had to contend with residents determined to get into evacuated areas to view the damage.

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

    Alberta Premier Ralph Klein and cabinet ministers Mike Cardinal and Dave Coutts toured the Crowsnest Pass area Monday.

    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.

    Despite a preoccupation with the Kamloops-area fires, the province's biggest blaze is still the 200-square-kilometre Chilko Lake fire, which officials said is about 20 per cent contained. Residents of nearby small communities such as Scum Lake were on evacuation alert.

    Elsewhere, officials said there were about 80 fires burning in Saskatchewan, 22 in Ontario and seven in Quebec.

    A once-mighty fire near Thompson, Man., however, was simply smouldering as cool, wet weather helped contain the blaze. There were 14 fires in the province.

    The Canadian Press, 2003

    08/5/2003 22:35 EST
    September 11th - Never Forget

    I respect firefighters and emergency workers worldwide. Thank you for what you do.

    Sheri
    IACOJ CRUSTY CONVENTION CHAIR
    Honorary Flatlander

    RAY WAS HERE FIRST

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    I wonder why our illustrious Prime Minister has yet to visit the devestated areas. At least during the Manitoba floods he showed up for a photo op with a sand bag.

    One has to wonder what his response would be if the fires were in Quebec or Ontario. Oh well we don't really want the Shawinigan Madman out here anyways.

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    NO SHI ummmmm

    He's such a f'n loser I can't WAIT for him to be gone GONE GONE

    Should I start a thread with a little rant?

    Chretien with his evil ways, his asinine and shaming non-action after September 11th, his refusal to back the Americans in Iraq has brought the Wrath of God down upon us .....

    SARS
    Mad Cow Disease
    Devastating fires
    Devastating floods
    Grasshopper infestations

    did I miss anything?
    September 11th - Never Forget

    I respect firefighters and emergency workers worldwide. Thank you for what you do.

    Sheri
    IACOJ CRUSTY CONVENTION CHAIR
    Honorary Flatlander

    RAY WAS HERE FIRST

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