Mon, Aug 10, 2009 - Page 7 News List

Relief for few from western Canada fires

‘CONSTANT REVIEW’: More than 2,000 people were allowed back home in Lillooet after firefighters tamed a blaze that had threatened the historic gold-rush town


The battle against a wildfire near this western Canadian city was hampered on Saturday by strong winds and thick smoke, keeping thousands of evacuees stranded into a second week.

But elsewhere in British Columbia, despite the 793 fires still burning across the province, the center of Canada’s wine industry, some people who earlier fled their homes were able to return, provincial fire department spokeswoman Alyson Couch said.

Officials allowed more than 2,000 people back to homes in Lillooet after firefighters largely tamed a blaze threatening the historic gold-rush town, 213km northeast of Vancouver, officials said.

No injuries or deaths have been reported across the region, and just three homes have burned down, Couch said.

A haze of thick smoke continued to hover over the wine-making and tourist area around Kelowna in the Okanagan Valley, 400km east of Vancouver.

Local emergency officials, however, had no assurances for 2,150 people who fled on Aug. 1, as a massive blaze on Terrace Mountain towered above area homes.

The blaze had grown to 8,550 hectares by Saturday and another 2,500 people remained on evacuation alert, ready to leave within minutes in case the winds change.

The fire threat is “under constant review … it changes in 10 minutes,” emergency spokesman Bruce Smith said from the emergency center.

Local weekend temperatures were slightly higher than normal, reaching 30ºC.

The Terrace Mountain fire, which the forestry service said was “human-caused” and under investigation, was just 40 percent contained on Saturday.

“This area is difficult to access and can be quite dangerous for crews as there is no road access, only helicopter. Last night there were strong winds and large amounts of smoke in the air,” the bulletin from the forestry service said on Saturday.

In the past month, Okanagan-area forest fires have forced as many as 17,000 people to flee, with thousands more on continual evacuation alert.

Officials are hoping for cooler temperatures with scattered showers province-wide in the next week, but they are prepared for the hot weather to continue, Couch said.

By Saturday, 1,400 forest firefighters and support workers from elsewhere in Canada had arrived to help British Columbia. Another 30 senior fire management officials arrived on Thursday from New Zealand and Australia.

There has been no decision yet to call in the military, which helped during Canada’s previous worst fire season in 2003.

Despite the smokey air, throngs of tourists here seemed unaffected — swimming, biking, floating on pleasure boats on Okanagan Lake and taking wine-tasting excursions.

And it is still too early in the grape-growing season for the fire to affect the current year’s wine, said Lisa Cameron of the provincial wine institute.

Local grapes are currently impervious to the smoke, at a stage “like little marbles with rock hard skin,” she said, though if the fires continue through the fall harvest season when the fruit ripens, “that would be a concern.”

About 95 percent of British Columbia’s growing wine industry is in the Okanagan Valley, with annual provincial wine sales of C$163 million (US$151 million) and wine tourism injecting another C$80 million into the economy, Cameron said.

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