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B.C. wildfires displace nearly 40,000 as Williams Lake becomes largest town to evacuate

Smoke is seen rising in front of the sun as a wild fire burns near Little Fort, B.C. Tuesday, July 11, 2017.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Aggressive wildfires have forced nearly 40,000 British Columbians from their homes early into the wildfire season, with strong wind gusts pushing flames across the Fraser River and threatening to choke off major highways.

As B.C. residents step up to help those affected, Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced Monday Ottawa was deploying military aircraft and Australia was sending 50 firefighters to battle the wildfires. Goodale said the fires were expected to worsen.

The entire city of Williams Lake – which is located about six hours northeast of Vancouver and has a population of just over 10,000 – was ordered evacuated on Saturday evening. A little more than half those residents had left voluntarily during an evacuation alert, but the remaining thousands streamed south to Kamloops overnight, a drive that normally takes about three hours taking upward of eight or nine for some.

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On Sunday, hundreds of people at a time wrapped around Kamloops's Sandman Centre, a multipurpose arena, as a haze of smoke hung in the air. Outside, volunteers handed out coffee, pastries, food vouchers and pet supplies; inside, hundreds of cots lay row upon row, available to evacuees on a first-come, first-serve basis.

B.C. wildfires: The damage so far, and how you can help

It is one of 11 reception centres opened so far across British Columbia.

Lucy Lorenzetto, who fled her home in Williams Lake overnight, stood outside clutching a blue blanket, a plastic bag full of toiletries and a paper cup full of coffee. It took Ms. Lorenzetto and her friends 8 1/2 hours to reach Kamloops.

"It took an hour just to get out of town, there was that much traffic," she said. "It was just chaos. We thought we were never going to get out of there."

Aaron Baker sat outside the arena with a ticket stub corresponding with the cot he would be able to sleep in that night. It took him almost 12 hours to reach Kamloops from Williams Lake – "bumper to bumper the whole way," he said.

He fled Fort McMurray during last year's wildfires there, too.

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"I'm not too worried," Mr. Baker said. "I'll just keep on keepin' on."

Nearby, volunteers assembled a large display of pet supplies, free for the taking: pet food, carriers, dishes. "Take as much as you need," read a hand-written sign.

The evacuation order for Williams Lake and surrounding areas was issued around 6 p.m. on Saturday due to high winds that threatened to cut exit routes out of town. Fire officials had expected significant wind in the Cariboo region over the weekend, bringing gusts of up to 70 kilometres an hour in some areas.

Todd Stone, minister responsible for Emergency Management B.C., estimated on Sunday that between 36,000 and 37,000 people had been impacted by evacuation orders so far this wildfire season.

Robert Turner, assistant deputy manager for the provincial agency, noted that while this is not unprecedented – B.C.'s 2003 wildfire season displaced around 50,000 people – this year's fires span a larger geographic area. As well, it's still early in the wildfire season.

"The possible duration of this is different," Mr. Turner said. "We have not yet reached those numbers but it is in many ways a much more complicated response because of the geographic scope."

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Fire officials are expecting to be in "response mode" for another 60 days, he added.

More than 6,700 households had registered with the Canadian Red Cross as of Sunday morning to receive their $600 in emergency financial assistance. Of those, more than 5,400 payments have already been issued, Mr. Turner said.

As of Sunday afternoon, more than 160 fires burned across B.C., including 15 that posed "very real threats" to communities, B.C.'s chief fire-information officer Kevin Skrepnek said.

The largest is the Ashcroft Reserve fire, which saw "major growth" over the weekend and was estimated at 42,300 hectares on Sunday – "but we certainly have some clusters of fires in the Chilcotin that could potentially join into one and be around that size, as well," Mr. Skrepnek said.

Fire-information officer Ellie Dupont said the blaze has gone through a few towns, but she could not say how many buildings were destroyed.

The fire is burning very aggressively because of the weather, the dry fuel and the region's topography, she said, adding that every specialist who has come in to work on the fire over the past week has made a comment about how "nasty" the fire is.

"It's complex," Ms. Dupont said. "It's making it difficult to fight the fire and to keep everyone safe so they're giving out a lot of evacuation alerts and orders so we can remove that threat and get in there and work properly on the fire without any worry of people being in the path."

Several homes were confirmed lost when a fast-moving fire raced through brush and forest above Okanagan Lake in the community of Lake Country late Saturday.

Lake Country officials said residents hoping to get back to their homes on Sunday were being turned away.

Lake Country fire chief Steve Windsor said the department is not releasing numbers just yet – "but at this point, we're saying 'numerous,' and it is quite numerous."

Central Okanagan Emergency Operations said in a news release that as many as 10 structures had been reported damaged.

Meanwhile, a wildfire near the boundary between B.C. and Alberta has prompted Parks Canada to close trails and evacuate hikers and campers in Kootenay and Banff national parks.

Parks Canada says the fire was spotted in the Verdant Creek area of Kootenay National Park on Saturday morning and has grown since then.

Personnel and helicopters were dispatched to manage the fire and Parks Canada closed the Egypt Lake, Redearth Pass and Healy Pass areas as a precaution.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More

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