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Wildfires force more than 2,500 Okanagan residents to evacuate

A home is seen in the foreground as flames from a forest fire are seen burning on a hillside in West Kelowna, B.C., on Friday, July, 18, 2014.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Our latest on the wildfire situation in B.C. can be found here.

Flames from a fast-moving wildfire have forced the evacuation of more than 2,500 residents from several neighbourhoods in British Columbia's Okanagan region.

The wildfire, which is one of about 140 burning in the province, broke out in West Kelowna early Thursday afternoon, but by late evening Central Okanagan Emergency Operations was reporting that it had grown to 200 hectares in size.

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Operations centre spokesman Bruce Smith said 12 aircraft, 11 ground crew from the province's Wildfire Management Branch, as well firefighters from departments in West Kelowna, Lake Country, the City of Kelowna and Peachland were battling the flames.

"We have just over 1,100 homes that are now evacuated," he said. "We're estimating that's about 2,500 residents."

However, the Central Okanagan Emergency Operations later said an additional 150 homes in the area had been added to the evacuation order, raising the total to about 1,250 homes.

An emergency reception centre was also moved from a local church to a secondary school, he added.

Premier Christy Clark, who represents Westside-Kelowna in the B.C. legislature, said in a statement she is monitoring the situation and will head to the area as soon as possible.

She also thanked first responders for keeping people and their property safe.

"Our community is strong and will come together to ensure our friends and neighbours have the support they need in this difficult time," she said.

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Evacuee Dawn Sutton said she went to a friend's house, brought along her dog, insurance papers and some personal belongings and is worried about losing her home.

"Of course I'm worried. Am I going to have a house?" she asked.

Sutton said she hasn't been told how long the evacuation order will remain in effect.

"It's scary, but, you know, I mean lives are more important," she said. "A house can be rebuilt again. That's the way I look at it."

Kayla Pepper of the Wildfire Management Branch said the cause of the fire is not yet known, and the flames are burning on a hillside covered by grass and trees.

Environment Canada reported cloudy skies, winds of up to nine kilometres an hour and temperatures of 28 C in the Okanagan city Thursday night.

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As residents of West Kelowna were fleeing the flames, hundreds of evacuees from Hudson's Hope, located about 1,100 kilometres to the north, were returning home after an anxious and sleepless night.

An evacuation order for the district of Hudson's Hope over the Mount McAllister fire was lifted earlier in the day, but an evacuation alert remained in effect.

"Thankfully, due to the cooling weather and rain that we received, it tamed the fire enough that we don't think it poses an imminent threat," said Laurel Grimm, spokeswoman for the district.

A lightning strike sparked the fire on Mount McAllister, south of the community in the Peace River valley. Whipped by the wind in what has been deemed the driest summer in B.C. for more than half a century, the blaze quickly grew to more than 200-square kilometres.

The fire was burning so fiercely that B.C.'s Wildfire Management Branch wouldn't put crews on the ground to fight the blaze, and the order was given Wednesday afternoon for residents to flee.

By Thursday morning, 829 people had registered at an emergency evacuation centre set up in an arena in Fort St. John, 90 kilometres east of Hudson's Hope.

One person stayed overnight Wednesday in the makeshift hostel, but the vast majority stayed with family and friends, or in hotels, many of which offered rooms for free to their displaced neighbours. Some 170 Hudson's Hope residents decided to camp out, filling many popular local campgrounds as they waited for word they could go home.

Dan Bouillon and his family were just returning from vacation Wednesday when they found out their community was under evacuation order.

"We didn't even get a chance to get home so we haven't retrieved anything from our house. We've got animals there. All our family photos are there," he said just before the order was lifted.

Several residents said the fire had come within 10 kilometres of the town.

"That's pretty close. I think people in the community are pretty concerned about that," said Bouillon, who is a member of the district council.

Bouillon, his wife, daughter and mother spent the night in a hotel, and he commended emergency services volunteers for their response.

Like everyone else, his eyes were on a forecast that was calling for a couple more days of rain and then a return to hot, sunny days.

"The next two days are pretty critical," he said.

Local Fort St. John-area residents flooded the evacuation centre with food and offers of help. The local women's centre dropped off bags filled with toothbrushes, toothpaste, books and teddy bears for the children.

The evacuation centre served as a temporary home for dozens of pets cared for around-the-clock by the local SPCA and city employees.

The response was immediate, said Andy Ackerman, a volunteer at the evacuation centre.

"There's been so much people are bringing in — water and food and just whatever they can — blankets and whatever else," Ackerman said. "It's been just tremendous show of support, which is not uncommon for our communities in the North."

About seven of the province's 140 wildfires have forced residents from their homes.

Firefighting crews were working Friday to put out a blaze at Smith Creek that threatened West Kelowna homes. Since last night area residents have been posting photos of the wildfire.

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