Evacuation Alert Issued In B.C. Growing Forest Fire

LILLOOET, B.C. (CP) -- Cottage country just west of Lillooet was issued an evacuation alert Friday due to a growing forest fire in the steep mountains above Seton Lake, the Ministry of Forests said.

The six-square-kilometre fire is not threatening the homes, but the property owners were given a warning similar to the one Lillooet's 2,700 residents received last Sunday, said Donna MacPherson, a Forests Ministry information officer.

Residents have one hour to leave if the fires get too close and an evacuation order is issued.

Four permanent homes housing seven people and five recreational cabins on Seton Lake were issued the latest evacuation alert. An unoccupied church monastery on the lake was also on alert.

The Seton fire was one of the original 13 lightning-caused fires that started in the Lillooet area last Friday, but it didn't flare up until Wednesday when afternoon winds increased.

Seton Lake, a huge B.C. Hydro reservoir, is located about seven kilometres west of Lillooet in an area known for its hot, dry summers.

Lillooet, located about 320 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, receives only 25 centimetres of rain a year.

MacPherson said the Seton fire is considered 15 per cent contained on its west side, but the east side is inaccessible due to cliffs and steep terrain.

There are currently 40 firefighters at Seton Lake, eight pieces of heavy equipment and four helicopters dropping water and fire retardant, she said.

Lillooet residents were told Thursday at a community meeting attended by about 200 people the RCMP and tribal police will arrest people who refuse to obey any evacuation order.

Officers from both police forces said a detailed evacuation plan has been developed and residents can expect an orderly, panic-free evacuation if it comes to that point.

Most Lillooet residents say they've packed their valuables and have an escape plan. Many people are driving around town with their backseats and trunks loaded with belongings.

MacPherson said the evacuation order remains in effect even though firefighters continue to make progress on the 15 square-kilometre fire burning to the north and south of Lillooet.

The so-called Town Creek fire is considered 45 per cent contained and the more than 200 firefighters have been able to strengthen fire guards in the past two days, she said.

Weather forecasts of dropping temperatures, rising humidity and a chance of light afternoon rain will help firefighters, she said. But thunderstorms and rising winds are also in the forecast for the area, MacPherson said.

The day-time temperatures have been near 40 C all week, but Friday's forecast was for highs between 29 C and 32 C.

Cloudy conditions are forecast for the weekend, but hot weather is expected to return by Tuesday, MacPherson said.

Meanwhile, people in the tiny Cariboo village of Kluskus decided to leave their community voluntarily because of dense smoke caused by two forest fires.

The town near Quesnel was put under an evacuation alert Thursdsay because of the fires.

And although the blazes are growing, they are moving away from Kluskus.

The B.C. Forest Service said the residents were being moved by helicopter to stay with friends and family in the Quesnel area until further notice.

By Friday night, there were 378 fires burning in British Columbia. At the same time last year, there were only 56, the Forests Ministry said.

It's no coincidence.

The head of the province's drought task force said Friday the province will see a hotter, drier summer and a need to save water.

Jim Mattison said the mountain snowpack melted early, disappearing almost entirely by the start of June.

Rivers that normally peak in mid-July were peaking in June, raising the possibility that fish will be harmed.

Farmers have been hit hard by the drought and some communities may have serious water concerns further into the summer.

Mattison said in many places, the ground is so dry that a heavy rain will just run off.

Instead, he said, people should be hoping for several weeks of slow drizzle.

``I think this is the year to save water,'' he said. ``This is the year to have a brown lawn and a dirty car if ever there was one.''