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Exhausted firefighters getting reinforcements

A group of friends sit in Lake Okanagan as they watch wildfires burn on Terrace Mountain north of Kelowna, B.C., in the early morning hours of Tuesday.


After weeks of fighting the flames and with more than 2,000 wildfires reported with no sign of slowing down, authorities in British Columbia have sent a clear message: We need help.

"It's exhausting work," said Fire Information Officer Alyson Couch. "I've been out on the fire line. I've seen the crews go off to work early in the morning and go home at night, and they are exhausted."

Battling the heat of forest fires in dry summer conditions where the temperature reaches as high as 40 degrees is no time to be drowsy. To give crews a much-needed rest, B.C. has already shipped in 850 firefighters and support staff from across the country, including 569 from Ontario. Now, the province is looking outside Canada's borders for more assistance.

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Fire specialists from Australia and New Zealand are on their way to help the resource-stretched effort to deal with one of the worst forest fire seasons B.C. has ever seen. Twenty-two people from Australia's State of Victoria and eight from New Zealand will arrive on Thursday and take up duties for the next month.

"We've had an agreement with Australia for a while now," Ms. Couch said. "We have sent our crews over there to help them out, and now they're returning the favour. We're so grateful that they're able to send some personnel over to us."

Because the southern hemisphere is currently in the middle of winter, she said, these countries are more readily available to help than closer neighbours like the U.S.

Meanwhile, last night BC Hydro warned that a 50-hectare fire at Antler Lake risks blacking out Vancouver Island north of Gold River.

Most of the fires across the province have been caused by lightning strikes, which have been more frequent this season as humid air collides with high temperatures. In the hot weather and dry conditions, these fires spread easily. More than 71,000 hectares have burnt in the province since April 1. The Ministry of Environment has issued air quality advisories for the Shuswap and Okanagan regions, where smoke is building up.

B.C. has already spent $121-million fighting those fires, double its initial budget, and costs are growing: the province spent more than $10-million on Monday alone.

Tuesday at a news conference in Pitt River, B.C., Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters he expects the costs of fighting the forest fires will trigger the federal government's Disaster Relief Act.

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"Obviously, this is a very worrisome situation. We're watching this very closely," he said. "We're always willing to provide whatever resources we can provide." When damages reach a certain point, the Relief Act is triggered automatically, he said.

The province often deals with extreme wildfire seasons, because the forest floor tends to have more needles and other fuel than elsewhere in the country, said Michael Feller, a professor of fire science at the University of British Columbia.

"Because trees tend to grow more vigorously in B.C. you get more fuel building up. More fuel means a more aggressive fire," Prof. Feller said.

With a report from The Canadian Press

<iframe width="600" height="350" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" marginheight="0" marginwidth="0" src=",-122.958984&spn=4.787293,13.183594&z=6&output=embed"></iframe><br /><P>View <a href=",-122.958984&spn=4.787293,13.183594&z=6&source=embed" style="color:#FF0000;text-align:left;font-family:verdana, sans-serif">a larger version of this map</a> that shows some of the prominent B.C. fires</P>

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