CAROL HARRINGTON

KAMLOOPS, B.C. (CP) - It could be weeks before evacuees from a fire-ravaged part of southern British Columbia can return home, an official said Wednesday as one blaze grew by 30 per cent.

Residents who fled the racing McLure-Barriere fire last Friday have been anxiously awaiting word when it might be safe for them to go home. But the news was not encouraging.

The fire about 40 kilometres north of here expanded by about 50 square kilometres from Tuesday to Wednesday, said Denis Gaudry, B.C. Forest Service fire information officer, driven by winds gusting up to 80 kilometres an hour.

"We had about a 5,000-hectare run yesterday afternoon with those winds," said Gaudry.

Thermal imaging now puts the fire at about 166 square kilometres, he said.

The blaze, the largest of three major wildfires in the Kamloops area, is moving in a northwesterly direction but not threatening any communities, said Gaudry.

However firefighters' inability to contain the blaze means it's not likely residents will be allowed to go home soon, said John Smith of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District's emergency operations centre.

A decision on re-entry depends on assessments from the fire commissioner and forest service, he said.

"But if the question was, would it be days, versus weeks, versus months, we're probably looking at weeks," said Smith.

While the McLure-Barriere fire grew substantially, Gaudry said the Cedar Hills fire near Falkland, in the Okanagan Valley south of here, and Strawberry Hill, adjacent to the Kamloops suburbs of Rayleigh and Heffley Creek, were more stable.

The Strawberry Hill blaze remained at about 42 square kilometres while Cedar Hills grew slightly to 15 square kilometres.

But there was also bad news from weather forecasters.

Lightning Tuesday sparked 30 out of 32 new fires south of Merritt, southwest of Kamloops.

"Three of those fires are causing problems in very heavy timber and steep ground," said Gaudry.

Thundershowers were predicted for Wednesday that could help dampen the fires but the storms will also bring more lightning, he said.

"So it is going to be a very busy day for us," said Gaudry.

The three fires forced about 10,000 people to flee their homes last week.

About 4,000 residents of Rayleigh and Heffley Creek were allowed back earlier this week but told to stay on evacuation alert.

Police and fire officials said Wednesday they ran into problems Tuesday night with some homeowners who've refused to obey new evacuation orders connected with the Strawberry Hill blaze.

"The RCMP had to re-enter that area when it became more dangerous at six o'clock last night," said Brian McMurdo of the regional fire commissioner's office.

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

Smith said officials were providing "confidential, one-on-one information" on damage to residents' properties, including photographs, maps and lists of hazards.

About 1,000 firefighters, bolstered by more than 100 soldiers from Edmonton, where working with three dozen planes and helicopters to control the Kamloops-area blazes.

The McLure-Barriere fire appears to have spared most of Barriere, a community of about 3,500. But the nearby village of Louis Creek, along with its sawmill, has been razed to the ground.

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."

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.

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.

Campbell said in an interview the government's cost-cutting strategy has not hampered efforts to fight the fires.

"As we go over the fire budget we're going to have to use some contingency for that," he said. "That's what contingencies are for and we'll get through this.

"I can tell you the budget will not in any way restrict our commitment to protecting people, to providing public safety and to fight these fires."

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/6/2003 17:07 EST