EMILY YEARWOOD-LEE

VANCOUVER (CP) - The massive McLure-Barriere blaze, which forced thousands from their homes north of Kamloops, has put a strain on the region's forest industry and spelled short-term disaster for local tourism.

Along with putting 170 workers out of work at a destroyed sawmill in the Louis Creek area, the blaze temporarily displaced several hundred other workers at neighbouring forest operations, some due to power outages, said Warren Oja, a vice-president for Local 1-417 IWA Canada.

Fires in the Kamloops area have cost Slocan Forest Products Ltd. "millions," said Dan Madlung, the company's vice-president of operations.

The fire caused power outages at mills in the Kamloops area and prevented the movement of wood chips, said Madlung.

The 190-square-kilometre McLure-Barriere fire, along with a smaller fire closer to Kamloops that also forced evacuations, have caused a short-term "tourism disaster," said Dave Coombs, president of the Thompson-Okanagan Tourism Association.

"It's big, big dollars that are being lost on a daily basis," he said, noting business at his golf course seemed to have dropped by about 40 per cent.

Businesses at the popular Sun Peaks Resort northeast of Kamloops lost an estimated $60,000 to $80,000 a day over a week-long period when guests were asked to leave as a precautionary measure, said Vince Accardi, a Tourism Sun Peaks spokesman.

At least 80 resort staff were out of work during the closure, he said.

"There is no doubt it will affect the bottom line because it's one of the busiest weekends of the summer season," said Accardi, referring the week access to the resort was restricted.

Public perception that wildfires are burning up around the ears of British Columbians is having a significant short-term impact, said M.*J. Cousins, executive director of Venture Kamloops, a regional economic development and tourism group.

"I do know people have phoned from across Canada, as well as internationally, because the impression that has been sent out there is that B.C. is on fire," said Cousins.

That impression could be tough to overcome, with the province experiencing what has been called the worst fire season in 50 years.

An estimated 878 fires were burning in British Columbia Wednesday, with 51 new fires ignited overnight, said Steve Bachop, a B.C. forest service spokesman. Most were sparked by lightning.

The McLure-Barriere fire was 60 per cent contained and hasn't grown in several days, he said.

The Chilko Lake fire, the province's largest at 290 square kilometres, was classified as 100 per cent contained earlier in the week, said Bachop.

But Cousins and others were confident tourism would more than recover in the long run.

In the area directly damaged by fires, much of the tourism business is actually done in the winter, when heli-skiing operations rake in the dough, said Coombs.

By far the most devastating economic impact, he noted, would surely be felt in the village of Louis Creek, where the fire not only claimed numerous homes, but also burned down the area's main employer, a sawmill owned by Tolko Industries Ltd.

"The Tolko mill is a concern," said Cousins. "If the mill does not reopen, there is going to be substantial impact, loss of jobs and loss of services that Tolko purchases in the area.

"For those particular communities, that would be a very substantial and unrecoverable situation. I can't imagine, without the mill, that a community like Louis Creek would reform."

A spokeswoman for Weyerhaeuser said there were concerns the fire would cause shutdowns at some company mills, but in the end the company was able to "maintain the flow of logs and keep operations going."

It's too early to guess the fire's impact on timber supply, said spokeswoman Sarah Goodman.

There also might be a "down-the-road impact in that there is going to be wood that is burnt - wood that will be processed in sawmills - and you get into the issues of quality and the challenge of trying to process some of that wood," she said.

B.C. Forests Minister Mike de Jong said Wednesday the province was working on calculating the impact of forest fires and dry weather logging bans on government revenues.

"There will be an impact; the question is the magnitude of that impact," he said, noting logging closures during the height of the fire season are not unusual.

In another part of southern British Columbia, logging bans due to extreme dry conditions also forced the closure of a Slocan mill near Radium and another mill was expected to close next week, said Madlung.

"We normally carry enough inventory that we have enough logs to carry through (logging bans due to dry weather)," he said. "In this case that time has come and gone and we haven't been in the woods for a while.

"You yearly plan for something worse than the average, but this is much worse than average."

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/13/2003 19:01 EST