More than 10,000 residents of Williams Lake, B.C., were ordered to flee their homes on Saturday evening, as nearby wildfires fanned by high winds threatened to cut off the highways out the city.
The evacuation order, affecting Williams Lake and surrounding areas, added to more than 16,000 people across British Columbia who have been forced from their homes in the past week as the province remains under a state of emergency. Thousands more are under alert to leave at a moment's notice.
Residents of Williams Lake, located a six-hour drive northeast of Vancouver, were advised to take Highway 97 to Highway 24, continuing on to Highway 5 into Kamloops. Vehicles were not permitted to stop in 100 Mile House, which was placed under an evacuation earlier in the week.
Surrounding areas under evacuation order include:
- All areas east of the Fraser River from the existing evacuation order at Soda Creek to 0.0km south of the Sheep Creek Bridge, including English Road
- Directly east to the southern end of Chimney Lake, continuing east to Wright Station Road at the north end of Lac La Hache
- All areas west of Highway 97 from Wright Station Road to the Williams Lake City limits, north along Highway 97, including all fringe areas of the City of Williams Lake including the areas of Fox Mountain, Pine Valley, Commodore Crescent, Glendale, Wildwood, Bull Mountain and Deep Creek not already evacuated, to the exiting evacuation order area at Soda Creek
Cariboo Regional District Chariman Al Richmond said winds began to pick up Saturday afternoon, prompting an expansion of evacuation alerts.
"I think basically, Mother Nature is sort of bringing forward our worst case scenario," Richmond said.
Fire officials had expected significant wind in the Cariboo region this weekend, bringing gusts of up to 70 kilometres in some areas. The winds are expected to continue into Sunday.
As of early Saturday afternoon, 161 fires burned across the province. However, that figure fluctuates by the minute and the full impact of this weekend's wind event, while expected, is "very much up in the air," Kevin Skrepnek, B.C.'s chief fire information officer said.
"We are especially concerned with what this wind is going to do with the fires we have burning through the Cariboo region and southern B.C.," Mr. Skrepnek said Saturday afternoon. "Certainly we want everyone to keep themselves out of harm's way."
Robert Turner, assistant deputy minister for Emergency Management B.C., said this year's wildfires have so far forced an estimated 17,400 people from their homes. Of those, 6,150 households – approximately 15,375 people – have registered with the Canadian Red Cross.
Many of Williams Lake's residents had left voluntarily in recent days, however the order means thousands more will be headed to safety in Kamloops and other cities.
Since the beginning of the wildfire season on April 1, 631 wildfire have burned more than 128,000 hectares of land.
People who cannot drive should meet at one of a dozen muster points located throughout the city, including at Glendale School, the Tourism Centre, and Kwaleen Elementary School where transportation is being organized.
The province has reminded evacuees to register with the Canadian Red Cross and, if they need lodging or food, to register at emergency social services reception centres as well.
The Thompson-Nicola Regional District issued an evacuation order Saturday night for properties in Electoral Area "A," while the District of Clearwater also ordered a number of properties evacuated due to the wildfire threat.
Premier-designate John Horgan released a statement late Saturday regarding the latest evacuations.
"My thoughts are with families in Williams Lake and other communities issued evacuation orders today, and with the countless volunteers, emergency response workers and firefighters who have been tirelessly working to support and protect families and communities."
Mr. Horgan, whose NDP government will be formally sworn in on Tuesday, also reiterated a pledge of government support.
"Our government will be ready to provide whatever support is needed in these difficult times," he said. "We are working closely with the outgoing government and our federal partners to deliver the support and services that are needed."
With files from the Canadian Press