CAROL HARRINGTON

LOUIS CREEK, B.C. (CP) - Joan Thompson climbed up out of the basement and into the charred skeleton of the home she had moved into just three weeks ago.

"This place is devastated," said the 70-year-old, who was married in the back yard last month. Thompson and others in this village of a few hundred were finally allowed to return to what little remained of their homes Saturday, a week after a ferocious forest fire forced them to evacuate, along with thousands of others in neighboring communities.

Louis Creek took the brunt of the damage as the fire virtually levelled the town, 50 kilometres northeast of Kamloops in south-central B.C.

Residents were warned earlier in the week there would be little to return to but Saturday brought them the first sight of what had been their homes.

"I wasn't sure whether it would be all gone but what can you say, what can you do?," Thompson said.

"You get a little upset, you get a little choked."

Down the road, the lumber mill that was the economic mainstay of the community, employing almost 200, was a mass of twisted, blackened metal.

Melted metal tables and warped file cabinets were all that remained of an eight-room office beside the mill.

Ironically, bundles of lumber stacked inside an open drying kiln were untouched by the inferno.

On the highway into Louis Creek, scorched shells were all that was left of about a dozen trailer homes.

Yet not far away, the bungalow of Mary and Harry Griffin was undamaged, although a workshop, barn and a horse trailer on the property were destroyed.

Mary, 77, said she wasn't happy the house had survived.

"I wish it had gone," she said. "All the mess we've got to clean up, it's going to take us weeks."

Inside, the home reeked of food that had rotted since the power went off and the freezer cut out.

Damage 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 the Louis Creek sawmill, other businesses and hundreds of gutted vehicles.

The fire, which has consumed almost 200 square kilometres, started in McLure, just south of Louis Creek.

Officials believe it started behind a highway cafe, probaly by human action although not deliberate.

Sweeping north through tinder-dry woods, it destroyed Louis Creek and advanced on Barriere, just a few kilometres north.

Barriere Fire Chief Al Kirk remained to fight the blaze. The town was spared major damage but at a price.

"The best way to describe it is if you've been to hell, well, I've been to hell and back," Kirk said of the experience.

As the last 3,500 evacuees returned to the area Saturday, crews worked to replace power lines and cut down charred, unsafe trees.

B.C. Deputy Fire Commissioner Bob Turley said the fire threatening the communities had been reduced to an acceptable area.

But he cautioned there are numerous hazards in the area so residents returning home will remain on evacuation alert.

Health officials warned residents allowed to return that thick smoke was creating poor air quality, to boil drinking water and to throw out freezer food because there had been no electricity for several days.

They were also asking residents to load up with bottled water, fill their vehicles with gasoline and to bring home a bottle of bleach for the cleanup.

Parents with babies were also to bring a week's supply of diapers, and everyone was to ensure they had plenty of soap, a flashlight, batteries and enough food for two days.

"It will likely be days before those retailers are inspected and even open," said Interior Health Authority spokesman Dan Ferguson.

On Friday, another 3,000 people living in other small communities near Kamloops were allowed to return home.

The residents were hastily turfed from their homes on Aug. 1.

Terry Olsen, owner of the general store in picturesque Pinantan Lake, 30 kilometres northeast of Kamloops, said although $40,000 of dairy products was spoiled, it was good to be back home.

"I'm very happy to be back and have my business running," he said.

Grant McDonald, who never left Pinantan because he chose to ignore the evacuation order, watered neighbours' lawns throughout the week and kept an eye out for looters.

When RCMP realized McDonald had stayed behind, they asked him for names of his next-of-kin in case he was killed by the nearby fire.

McDonald replied: "Phone my mom, she knows where I am."

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

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/9/2003 18:49 EST