Tumbler Ridge resident Joline Couture feared the worst last week as she prepared to pack up and leave under an evacuation order as wildfires loomed outside the small community in British Columbia’s northeast.
“It was absolutely terrifying,” Couture said.
As a Canadian Ranger, Couture was also waiting on orders to go door to door to tell people to leave as winds whipped up the flames and pushed them toward the town.
“We were told it’s not a matter of if the fire was gonna hit Tumbler Ridge, it was a matter of when it was gonna hit, so that was pretty terrifying, to know that I was going to be knocking at doors and telling people to pack everything that they could because they might not have a place to come home to,” she said.
“And there were some people that said that they didn’t want to leave.”
But now the imminent risk to the town has lifted.
Thanks to recent rain and favourable winds, Tumbler Ridge’s roughly 2,000 residents were allowed to return home Thursday, although thousands of people remain displaced because of blazes across the country.
Forrest Tower with the BC Wildfire Service said that despite the lifting of the order, the rain hadn’t been enough to extinguish the West Kiskatinaw fire outside the town, and it could be burning for weeks to come.
Still, Couture said she was “ecstatic” the evacuation order had been lifted. She waited out the evacuation in Alberta with family.
“These are my people. These are my neighbours. These are good friends,” she said. “We’re all just so happy to go home and not see any damage.”
A statement on the District of Tumbler Ridge website says an evacuation alert will remain in place indefinitely, “and residents are reminded to be ready to evacuate the area with little notice should the need be determined.”
Residents were told to leave on June 8 when the West Kiskatinaw fire threatened to overrun the community.
The BC Wildfire Service says the West Kiskatinaw fire, which remains classified as out of control, has grown to 250 square kilometres since it was discovered on June 6.
Tower said crews were aided by favourable weather conditions, allowing them to tackle the blazes enough to make it safe for people to return to Tumbler Ridge for the time being.
Tower said people in the community should still be prepared if conditions change, warning that with “core fire season” approaching, fires that have since been contained can again spin out of control.
“Just given how dry it is, it’s a real possibility that these fires will burn for several weeks for sure, and it could be burning throughout the summer months specifically,” he said.
Federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said Thursday that many people in Alberta, B.C. and Quebec have been able to return home but thousands remain displaced due to fires across the country.
That includes 13,022 people in Alberta, 1,994 in Quebec, and 820 in Nova Scotia. In addition, there are 3,266 people from First Nations still under evacuation orders.
Blair said rain and cooler weather have helped improve the fire situation significantly in the Maritimes and parts of Quebec, but that’s not the case everywhere.
“The hot, dry and windy conditions in parts of Western Canada, and in Ontario are exacerbating an already dangerous set of circumstances and we know the peak of the wildfire season may still be several weeks away,” he said.
As of Thursday afternoon, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre was reporting 446 active fires, of which 217 are out of control. The centre was reporting 127 fires in Quebec, 83 in Alberta, 70 in British Columbia and 56 in Ontario.
Blair says more than 53,000 square kilometres have burned in Canada so far this season, which is almost three times the size of Lake Ontario.
Cooler weather has stalled growth of a huge wildfire in northeastern B.C. burning just a few kilometres from the Alaska Highway.
A statement from the wildfire service says travel on the key route linking Yukon and the northeast corner of B.C. to the rest of the province could be affected within a day or two as the 5,000-square-kilometre Donnie Creek wildfire expands.
An evacuation alert covers both sides of a section of the highway between Fort Nelson and Fort St. John, and the wildfire service says teams are protecting critical infrastructure along the route and could use planned ignitions to create back burns to keep flames away from the road.
Containment lines are holding around the Vancouver Island wildfire that closed Highway 4 east of Port Alberni on June 6, cutting off paved access to that city and the communities of Tofino and Ucluelet.
Efforts to clear fallen trees and rocks above the highway are underway and the province has said limited travel could resume by next weekend.