CAROL HARRINGTON

CRANBROOK, B.C. (CP) - Fire crews painted a mountainside red, defending the thick forest with retardant from a menacing wildfire that has forced an evacuation of about 200 residents from a lake near this southern British Columbian city.

"Calmer winds have allowed crews to lay a lot of retardant on a mountain where the fire is heading toward," Loree Duczek, an information officer for the emergency operation centre, said Friday.

Most of that red chemical retardant was dumped on the forest by 12 helicopters, aided by ground crews, Duczek said.

Some of those crews were pulled back at about 1 a.m. Friday morning after trees began falling all around them as root systems burst into flame, said Bob Pfannenschmidt, a fire information officer.

"We had to pull (firefighters) out because trees were falling down everywhere," he said. "At night time when it's hard to see it isn't worth having anybody in the area because it's too dangerous."

About 150 firefighters were battling the uncontained, uncontrolled Lamb Creek blaze on Friday, which has consumed more than 106 square kilometres of mountainous forest about 15 kilometres southwest of Cranbrook, about 530 kilometres east of Vancouver.

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell extended the provincewide state of emergency, declared Aug. 2, for another two weeks on Friday as the government banned camping on all Crown land in the southern third of the province just before the Labour Day long weekend.

"This extraordinary measure is unfortunate but vital," said Campbell in a statement.

"This is the driest summer in B.C. history and, with nearly 2,200 fires so far this fire season, we must remain vigilant about maintaining public safety as our top priority."

Near Cranbrook, 80 kilometre-an-hour winds, whipped the blaze up this week, pushing residents from their homes and cottages.

The two-week-old blaze moved through the structures, but because structural-fire units from Ontario and Alberta put sprinklers atop of the buildings, they withstood the firestorm.

The fire was so hot and out of control, firefighters were forced to back off and simply watch the fire gobble up the heavy, dry timber.

Some B.C. fire crews here were previously battling the Okanagan Mountain fire near Kelowna. But when that blaze settled down this week, they moved east to fight yet another fire.

About 850 residents south of Cranbrook have received evacuation notices, which means they could be told to leave at a moment's notice. No one living within the city limits have been evacuated or received a notice, Duczek said.

But some would-be evacuees who were given the order to clear out hadn't moved by Friday afternoon.

"We're going to keep our eyes open until we get kicked out," said Mark Uphill a resident of the Trafk trailer park.

Uphill, along with fellow resident Wsbrand Van Hoek, said they have decided to stay in the park to protect its 16 trailers from the Lamb Creek inferno.

"They don't have to take us away in handcuffs," said Van Hoek. "If it gets real bad, we're gone."

Other evacuees were growing frustrated at seeing a large puff of smoke on the horizon but getting few answers from a dial-in line that's supposed to say when they can return to their homes.

"It's not as up to date as I would like," said Linda Botterill, evacuated from her Monroe Lake home on Monday.

Botterrill said many evacuees are getting their information from firefighters coming off the front lines, often waiting all day to hear any news of what's happened.

"We're not out of the woods yet," she said.

Botterill, who teaches at a local school, said she desperately wants to go back.

"I'm going to take advantage of going back in because I only grabbed a few clothes," she said. "I'm thinking it's time to find a laundromat."

Meanwhile, firefighters reported good progress with major fires burning north and east of Kamloops that had previously forced thousands to evacuate.

But the hot and dry weather forecast does not bode well for fire crews throughout southern British Columbia for the next few days.

There now are more than 750 fires burning in the B.C. Interior.

The Okanagan Mountain Park fire forced almost 30,000 people - about one third of Kelowna's population - from their homes a week ago, destroying more than 230 houses according to the latest estimate.

Federal Conservative Leader Peter MacKay toured the fire-damaged area Friday and stressed the need for government compensation for the victims.

"The adequacy and the immediacy of the compensation is important," he said. "And then, after this is under control and no one is at risk either personally or property-wise, (we can) to get on to examining how we can prevent such devastating fires in the future .*.*."

Most Kelowna evacuees were expected to be back in their houses by the weekend, while about 200 evacuated residents of Naramata, south of Kelowna, were allowed back Thursday.

But for those who might not have homes to go back to, there's growing concern landlords are taking advantage of homeless victims by boosting rents.

Tannis Trevor-Smith, who lost both her rental property and her home to the flames, said that suggested rents are double what she could have charged on her property in one of the best areas of Kelowna.

One furnished house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms is listed at $2,500 a month, not including utilities. The owner of the house said it's a case of supply and demand.

Many Kelowna residents were slowly getting back into their summer routine by golfing, shopping, and preparing for the new school year.

The mayor of this tourist resort city, in fact, is desperate for hesitant visitors to know the menacing blaze is far from Kelowna and it's pretty much business as usual in the Okanagan Valley's largest community.

"I can tell you absolutely that Kelowna is open for business," said Mayor Walter Gray, adding the fire is 15 kilometres away from the city centre.

"It's still that great resort community in the Okanagan. It's safe to come here."

The Okanagan Mountain Park fire grew only slightly this week, covering about 200 square kilometres, and is 70 per cent contained.

All of the city's schools were intact, allowing the new school year to kick off next week on schedule.

The province, which had budgeted about $54 million to pay for forest fire costs this fiscal year, said the effort so far has cost taxpayers about $200 million, with daily costs fluctuating.

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/29/2003 19:35 EST