CAROL HARRINGTON

KELOWNA, B.C. (CP) - News that it could take until at least next weekend for evacuees from the neighbourhoods hardest hit by an Okanagan wildfire didn't sit easy with those desperate to return.

At its height the blaze drove out nearly one-third of the city's population and ripped through nearly 250 homes, in many cases leaving little but the buildings' foundations. "Oh man, I just want to get my life back to normal," said Gus Neilson, who lives on a southeast Kelowna street where several houses were destroyed last Friday.

"I so miss the simple things, like having coffee in my backyard, reading the paper in the living room, watching my kids play on the swings - even to have a simple hot shower," said Neilson who has been camping nearby with his wife and two teenage children for the last several days.

The hard-hit areas in the city's southern subdivisions won't be safe until crews remove fallen trees and replace charred electrical wires and telephone polls, officials said Tuesday.

That's the best scenario for thousands of evacuees whose homes are in areas where 248 houses were destroyed or damaged, Ron Mattiussi, manager of the Kelowna emergency operations centre.

"There are neighbourhoods that have to be rebuilt," he said. "That takes a bit of logistics, that takes a little bit of time in stages, so please bear with us."

While some were allowed to return after last week's evacuations, some 16,000 are still out of their homes, while another 25,000 residents remain on evacuation alert should the fires grow again.

Officials are working to get thousands of evacuees back in their neighbourhoods where nothing has been destroyed, but they say the long-term weather forecast is not promising.

"Super hot dry conditions are at us again for another 15 days and there is no rainfall in any of those forecasts," said Judy Beck, a fire-behaviour specialist with the B.C. Forest Service.

Winds above 15 kilometres per hour can force the fire to spread, she said.

Forest service officials have said that they need five consecutive days of heavy rain to help snuff the Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire that started by a lightning strike Aug. 16.

The fire, which is 60 per cent contained, has not grown for the last two days and fire crews have been busy snuffing out hot spots and bolstering existing fire control lines, said Kevin Matuga, a forest service information officer.

When evacuees return to areas without electricity, they will be asked to tape their refrigerators and freezers to be hauled to the dump because the food inside is rotting and will have a foul odour, Mattiussi said.

Many farmers and fruit growers returned home Tuesday for the first time since being evacuated last week to spray crops, irrigate land and feed livestock.

"It's a very strong inconvenience," Edward Schiller said of not being able to tend to his grapes which are rapidly ripening and need to be harvested in his east Kelowna vineyard in about two weeks.

Even though hundreds of farmers received permits to go back home from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, some were denied access to their land because the fire was just too close.

Sonya Waugh said she couldn't get a permit for her father's grape orchard because it is in the provincial park where most of the land was completely burned and there are still too many hot spots.

That could be a problem for Waugh because the grapes now are likely ripe and hungry bears forced to forage in the valleys may gobble up the plump, tasty fruit.

"I'm worried but you just have to trust everybody is doing the best they can," she said.

Kelowna fire Chief Gerry Zimmerman said recent calm winds have allowed officials to "downgrade," and send some out-of-town fire crews back home.

"We're very hesitant to send too many back because if something does come up on us we'd like that equipment here," he said.

The Kelowna blaze isn't the only wildfire sucking B.C. resources. More than 800 are burning up the province and two more exploded Monday night, forcing small-scale evacuations.

Matuga said crews were making progress on other major blazes, such as the 265-square-kilometre McLure-Barriere fire, which forced thousands to flee earlier this month.

"The fire was reasonably quiet and gains were made with mop-up operations," he said.

The McGillvary Lake fire, at 82 square kilometres, was also being surrounded. But Matuga said light rain spoiled plans for a preventive burnoff Monday.

One of the new hot spots is near Cranbrook, in southeastern British Columbia, where about 93 people were ordered from their homes and another thousand were notified they might be placed on evacuation alert.

The blaze was 15 kilometres from Cranbrook on Tuesday and officials were forecasting aggravating conditions - winds and hot, dry temperatures.

Late Monday, it crossed a fire guard and ate up another two kilometres towards the city. Protective sprinklers were rigged up on the homes of evacuees and crews were aggressively attacking the blaze with helicopters, water tankers, bulldozers and excavators.

Fire information officer Carolyn Mitchell said the fire is very aggressive.

"Whole trees are engulfed in flames, from the forest floor to the tops and strong winds are increasing the rate of spread."

Firefighters were attempting to navigate steep, difficult terrain to re-establish control lines Tuesday.

Several thousand people in another community near Kelowna were placed on evacuation alert Monday night, as a blaze threatened the north shore of Shuswap Lake.

That fire covers eight hectares and is now 60 per cent contained.

Residents on evacuation alert have to be ready to vacate their homes at a moment's notice and many say living on edge like that is almost as bad as being evacuated.

Some facts about wildfires raging across the B.C. Interior as of Tuesday:

Number of fires: 834; 658 caused by lightning, 176 by people.

Largest fire: Chilko Lake, 290 square kilometres, 100 per cent contained.

Most threatening: Okanagan Mountain Park, 200 square kilometres, between Kelowna and Naramata; McLure-Barriere fire, 265 square kilometres, north of Kamloops; McGillvray fire, 82 square kilometres, west of Chase.

Area burned: About 1,780 square kilometres since April 1.

Evacuees: About 17,000, most from Kelowna area.

Firefighters: About 3,200, including 400 from other provinces (varying due to reassignments) and 1,150 military personnel.

Cost of battle: $169.4 million total to date, about $6 million a day.

Fires elsewhere in Canada

Alberta: 10, six under control:

Saskatchewan: 16.

Manitoba: 70, 16 under control.

Ontario: 50, nine out of control.

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/26/2003 20:15 EST