B.C. government issues most restrictive travel advisory ever for campers


KAMLOOPS, B.C. (CP) - As a wildfire near Kelowna grew fivefold in a day, the B.C. government issued its most restrictive travel advisory ever Wednesday for the tinder-dry province.

The province warned people to avoid the backcountry in the southern half British Columbia because of rampaging forest fires. "We're concerned about the safety of the public out there, should another fire start, and we don't want any more human caused fires," said Rick Clevette, a government spokesman.

He said the voluntary restriction stretches from Prince George in the north, 550 kilometres south to the U.S. border and from Vancouver Island to the Alberta border, a distance of 700 kilometres.

The advisory came after a fire threatening suburbs of Kelowna, as well as a nearby small town, grew a "phenomenal" 90 square kilometres in just 24 hours, an official said Wednesday.

More than 2,000 homes in Kelowna's southern suburbs were on evacuation alert, as were about 1,000 residents of Naramata, south of the fire.

Meanwhile, more people were pushed from their homes east of Kamloops Wednesday night by the aggressive McGillvary Lake blaze, bringing the total to about 850 evacuees.

Of that number, about 500 were forced earlier in the week from their homes near the community of Chase, about 50 kilometres east of Kamloops, by the fire measuring about 27 square kilometres.

The roughly 2,600 residents of Chase remained on evacuation alert Wednesday night.

Fire information officer Kevin Matuga said the Kelowna-area wildfire blackening Okanagan Mountain provincial park, on the shores of Okanagan Lake, was just 20 square kilometres on Tuesday but now measured 110 square kilometres.

"A 9,000-hectare run in a 24-hour period is phenomenal for the southern Interior," he told a news conference here.

Matuga blamed gusting winds, bone-dry forests and a lack of rain for the fire's mushrooming rate of growth.

"It's beyond what we've ever seen before," he said. "There's absolutely nothing our crews or equipment or helicopters can do to stop a fire from spreading that fast."

Matuga said winds from the north and west pushed the flames into an area of continuous fuel on Tuesday, allowing for the creation of "flame fronts" stretching for as much as two kilometres.

Those fronts chewed through timber at rates of up to 50 metres per minute, he said.

No new evacuation orders had been given for the area as firefighters continued to assess the inferno's behaviour, said B.C. Fire Commissioner Bruce Cousins.

"It's going to depend on fire action," he said.

Thousands of southern Interior residents remained out of their homes as hot, dry weather and high winds fanned the flames of more than 850 fires burning across British Columbia.

Elsewhere, Alberta firefighters were still struggling to contain a fire in the Crowsnest Pass region, although residents have returned to their homes. There were also small, fire-spurred evacuations in northern Manitoba and western Ontario.

British Columbia has been under a state of emergency since Aug. 2 in what Premier Gordon Campbell called the worst fire season in 50 years.

About 3,000 firefighters, including hundreds of Canadian soldiers, are battling the flames.

"I applaud and offer our thanks to all the firefighters, military personnel, provincial emergency employees, local governments and volunteers involved for their bravery and ongoing dedication through a difficult, exhausting period," Campbell said in a statement Wednesday.

The government announced Tuesday it was setting up a provincial fire department to speed deployment of resources.

On Wednesday morning, forestry crews were hoping for more favourable winds after the McLure-Barriere wildfire, which already consumed dozens of homes and trailers earlier this month, went on a run Tuesday night.

The blaze grew to just over 237 square kilometres, said Matuga. It was about 50 per cent contained as 995 firefighters, with heavy equipment and 12 helicopters worked to build a fire guard around it, he said.

About 400 people were ordered out of a recreational area north of Kamloops, said fire information officer Donna McPherson.

"It was blown along by the winds that were blown out of the north," she said. "We have a little bit of a break (Wednesday) with our weather. It's just a little bit back to the southwest and a little milder than yesterday."

B.C. Hydro also announced that permanent power should be restored to the North Thompson and Robson Valley areas by next Monday.

Power had been out since the beginning of August when the McLure-Barriere fire raged out of control, causing severe damage to about 20 kilometres of transmission lines.

Meanwhile, the Venables Valley fire near Ashcroft, about 70 kilometres west of Kamloops, remained relatively stable at about 62 square kilometres.

In the Nelson area, crews were struggling in rugged terrain to build a control guard and keep the 16-square-kilometre Ingersoll blaze away from homes.

Sprinklers were turned on the homes of 25 evacuees and much of the livestock was moved out of the area.

The Togo fire in Washington state edged closer to the B.C. border but a joint U.S.-Canadian firefighting effort slowed its advance towards Grand Forks, B.C.

Meanwhile the armed forces were sending more troops to reinforce the firefighting effort.

On Wednesday, another 340 troops were sent to Vernon, B.C., for a crash course in firefighting before being sent to fire lines. They will join another 400 already in the province.

In Alberta, residents who faced smoke and fire for 29 days were jubilant Wednesday as officials lifted a one-hour evacuation alert for hard-pressed communities in the Crowsnest Pass area, near the southern B.C. border.

Crews continued to battle the 221-square-kilometre Lost Creek fire, which was still not under control, but the remaining evacuees from Blairmore were allowed back Sunday.

In Manitoba, heavy smoke over the town of Split Lake, 820 kilometres north of Winnipeg, forced the evacuation of 200 of the 1,500 residents.

An uncontrolled fire around Minaki, Ont., just east of the Manitoba border, also prompted 520 people to voluntarily leave the community.

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/20/2003 22:34 ES