CAROL HARRINGTON

KAMLOOPS, B.C. (CP) - Almost half of 6,500 forest fire evacuees got the thumb's up to go home Friday, with remaining residents disheartened that they can't return to their towns and villages because it is not yet safe.

"There are a large number of safety issues directly related to fire that we believe still makes the situation untenable," said Brian McMurdo, a spokesman for the B.C. fire commissioner.

"There is heavy smoke in the town. We are also dealing with propane tanks that have been impinged."

The 3,000 residents who are being allowed to return home after fleeing the Strawberry Hill fire a week ago are from several small villages as well as rural areas northeast of Kamloops.

Some of the remaining 3,500 evacuees from the most damaging wildfire in British Columbia this summer said they are disappointed they are going to be the last residents able to go home.

"It's hard, but I don't want to go back if it's unsafe," said Dianne Richards, a resident of Barriere, 50 kilometres north of Kamloops.

"So I'll just have to stick it out, hopefully not much longer."

Residents from the area where the fire now has grown to 181 square kilometres, have been on a roller coaster since Wednesday, when officials said it could be weeks before it was safe enough for them to return.

After touring the region by air on Thursday, B.C. Forests Minister Mike de Jong announced that all evacuees could go back within 24 hours if was deemed safe.

An official at an area emergency operations centre said Friday that politicians wanted to expedite the return of evacuees because they were sensitive to the residents' plight.

"They are all trying to get the suffering minimized of people as best they can but not to compromise safety," said John Smith, director of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District's emergency operations centre.

"What is was, was a desire to make it happen."

But B.C. forest officials said the Barriere-McLure fire is still raging out of control and it's far too dangerous for resident to return.

"We have hundreds of miles of control lines that need to be established," said Kevin Matuga, an information officer for B.C. Forest Service.

Damage assessment to properties in the Kamloops-area fires is $8.2 million so far, which includes the destruction of 39 houses, 26 trailer homes, 99 sheds and barns, as well as house contents. It doesn't include a sawmill, other businesses and hundreds of gutted vehicles.

The Tolko mill in the nearly wiped-out village of Louis Creek employed about 200 people.

Smith said Friday he had no new information on a re-entry plan for the Barriere-McLure area.

Evacuees whose homes were without electricity should grip themselves before they clean their refrigerators, health officials warned.

"I think they are going to be faced with some horrific smells," said Dan Ferguson, a spokesman for the Interior Health Authority. "It's not going to be a pretty job."

The Barriere-McLure fire, which grew only marginally since Thursday, is 20 per cent contained, said Matuga.

The Strawberry Hill blaze, the one nearest Kamloops, grew by about 10 square kilometres to 57 square kilometres but was 90 per cent contained.

"The fire behaviour has been very minimal on this fire in the past two days," said Matuga.

The Cedar Hills fire near Falkland in the north Okanagan about 100 kilometres southeast of here, was largely unchanged at around 16 square kilometres, and now totally contained behind fire guards, he said.

The forest service said there were 640 fires burning as of Thursday night, 445 of them caused by lightning.

The largest one remains the 300-square-kilometre Chilko Lake fire in the Cariboo region of central British Columbia, which has left several small communities on evacuation alert.

More than 2,000 firefighters are battling the blazes. Matuga said 533 firefighters from Yukon, Northwest Territories, Ontario, New Brunswick and Alberta, as well as about 100 soldiers, were helping B.C. fire crews.

In southwest Alberta, the remaining people driven from their homes by a tenacious fire in the Crowsnest Pass region were allowed to return to their homes Friday.

About 1,200 residents of Blairmore had been out of their homes for five days under threat from the Lost Creek fire, which had crept to within three kilometres of the Rocky Mountain town.

About 800 people from nearby Hillcrest were allowed to go home Wednesday. The one-hour evacuation alert has also been lifted for other area communities such as Pincher Creek.

The fires around Kamloops forced more than 10,000 people from their homes last week.

Most now have been given permission to return but were warned to remain on alert to flee again if conditions change.

The latest included small communities and subdivisions affected by the Strawberry Hill fire, including Paul Lake, Heffley Creek and Evergreen Estates.

Lightning continued to start new fires, Matuga said - 26 out of 30 new blazes in the Kamloops region were caused by lightning strikes.

He appealed to people to be careful because responding to fires from human causes diverts resources from lightning-caused fires that can't be prevented.

"Every human-caused fire is preventable," he said.

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/8/2003 17:27 EST