Calmer winds are helping crews hold off two out-of-control wildfires outside Fort St. John in northeastern British Columbia, a day after the city of 21,000 was told to prepare for a possible evacuation amid what one resident called scenes of “controlled chaos.”
Patrick Patterson says there was a sense of panic among some residents Monday as winds reaching 61 kilometres per hour blew dark smoke over the city, around the time the evacuation alert was issued.
He says the smoke plume also coincided with power and cellphone service dropping out in some areas, putting people “on edge,” but conditions in the city have now improved enough to see patches of clear sky.
Winds around the city have calmed to 15 kilometres per hour, but the operations director for the BC Wildfire Service says unseasonably warm and dry weather continues to pose “very challenging” conditions for crews fighting the overlapping Red Creek and Stoddart Creek fires.
Cliff Chapman told a news briefing the flames are about 20 to 25 kilometres from Fort St. John.
Chapman says an abundance of black spruce, a timber that can fuel extremely fast fire spread, forced firefighters to pull out of some positions Monday, with some fronts moving up to 12 kilometres in a 12-hour period.
The BC Wildfire Service says 50,000 hectares of land has been burned in the province so far this year, several times higher than the 10-year average of 11,000 hectares at this point in the season.
Wildfires have forced officials in the Peace River region to issue several other bulletins, including an evacuation alert for the District of Taylor and an evacuation order covering a large tract of land north of Fort St. John.
The wildfire service website shows the Stoddart Creek blaze has reached about 235 square kilometres in size, while the Red Creek fire is about 29 square kilometres.
The Stoddart Creek fire jumped Highway 97 late Monday, temporarily closing the route, but single-lane, alternating traffic resumed within hours.
An unusual May heat wave has spurred rising wildfire risks in both B.C. and Alberta, with another 37 heat records set in B.C. on Monday and 18 tied or broken in Alberta.
Environment Canada heat warnings remain for inland sections of B.C.’s north coast but have been downgraded across much the rest of the province and Alberta.
Special weather statements warn of continuing, unseasonable heat for much of B.C. and air quality advisories cover large parts of Alberta, due to wildfire smoke.
As of Monday night, more than 19,000 people in Alberta had been forced from their homes, with 24 out of 87 active wildfires in the province classified as burning out of control.
— With files from Moose FM