By CAROL HARRINGTON

KAMLOOPS, B.C. (CP) - Firefighters battling three major blazes near here looked worriedly at the skies Tuesday as weather forecasters predicted thunderstorms and lightning for the area.

Lightning strikes hold the potential of sparking more fires in the parched southern B.C. region where wildfires forced the evacuation of about 10,000 people. Many have been told it's safe to return to their homes, if there're still there, but remain on evacuation alert in case conditions change again.

Damage-assessment teams began going through the ravaged region Tuesday and were expected to begin informing individual property owners about their losses Wednesday.

Storms late Tuesday produced scores of lightning strikes and winds gusting above 60 kilometres an hour.

Denis Gaudry of the B.C. Forest Service said Wednesday lightning started 30 fires Tuesday near Merritt, southwest of Kamloops. Three of them were in steep, heavily-treed terrain and one had grown to 10 hectares by Wednesday morning.

With more lightning predicted, "it is going to be a very busy day for us," said Gaudry.

About 1,000 firefighters, bolstered by more than 100 soldiers from Edmonton, where working with three dozen planes and helicopters to control blazes near Falkland, McLure-Barriere and just north of Kamloops itself.

The fires have burned about 160 square kilometres of forest and grassland, as well as destroying homes, businesses and a sawmill in Louis Creek, about 50 kilometres north of here.

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell toured the devastated region by air Tuesday, then landed at Louis Creek. He described the charred village as "awful and awesome."

"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."

Firefighters had a relatively good day Tuesday thanks to low winds and smoke that kept mitigated the 30-degree temperatures.

"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.

In neighbouring Alberta, firefighters were also watching the weather as the fought the 180-square-kilometre Lost Creek fire, which has forced almost 2,000 people out of the Crowsnest Pass towns of Blairmore and Hillcrest.

About 4,000 people were allowed to return home to the Kamloops suburbs of Rayleigh and Heffley Creek on Tuesday as firefighters moved to contain the Strawberry Hill fire. But they were told to be ready to leave again on short notice.

In his tour, Campbell also visited a Kamloops emergency centre housing refugees from the fire.

"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."

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."

Chretien promised Wednesday to provide federal disaster relief for British Columbia.

"Once everything is settled, we'll evaluate the disaster and the federal government will make a financial contribution in accordance with the law," Chretien said while hosting French President Jacques Chirac in Shawinigan, Que.

The prime minister, who did not mention a dollar amount, denied a suggestion Ottawa has reacted slowly in offering assistance.

"We're not the ones who own the planes (the waterbombers)," he said. "Those are provincial responsibilities. We're happy to see all the provinces helping with planes to finish this disaster."

It's costing between $2.5 million and $3 million a day to fight the fires in the province, Campbell said, but it will take time to estimate how much damage has been done.

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/6/2003 13:56 EST