No respite for tens of thousands of Canadians fleeing wildfires

Canadian Red Cross volunteers wait to assist wildfire evacuees in Kamloops, British Columbia on July 18, 2017.
Canadian Red Cross volunteers wait to assist wildfire evacuees in Kamloops, British Columbia on July 18, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

MONTREAL (AFP) - Tens of thousands of people who fled wildfires in western Canada were unable to return home on Tuesday as the massive blazes raged on.

Officials said that 155 fires were still burning in British Columbia province, where the flames have already consumed more than 327,000ha of forest and uncultivated land.

Of the active blazes, 15 present a "real threat to communities", said British Columbia fire spokesman Kevin Skrepnek.

Although small numbers of people have been able to return to their homes, around 46,000 people remain displaced by the inferno.

Some 1,000 residents of Cache Creek, around 100km west of Kamloops, were able to return home 11 days after they were first evacuated, but under warning they may have to flee again at short notice.

"Residents need to be reminded that the village of Cache Creek remains on evacuation alert," local authorities said in a statement.

"While the Ashcroft fire continues to remain active, residents must be prepared to leave at any time." Families who returned home were set to receive about C$600 (S$649) in aid from the Red Cross, said Transport Canada official Robert Turner.

In Kamloops itself, a town of about 100,000 people 350km north-east of Vancouver, volunteers and emergency services were preparing to receive thousands of evacuees.

Food and water were being handed out underneath canvas awnings, while evacuees were offered counselling or help filling out compensation forms.

Hundreds of cots were set up in a large sports hall for the displaced, some of whom were arriving from as far away as Williams Lake, 300km to the north-west.

Around 3,000 firefighters and 220 helicopters and firefighting planes are battling the blaze, with reinforcements due to arrive from other parts of the country.

On the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, the fires forced the partial closure of some of Canada's most prized national parks, such as Banff in the province of Alberta, which is visited by some four million tourists every year.

Part of Banff National Park has been closed to the public since Monday.

Like California far to the south, British Columbia, on Canada's Pacific coast and bordering the United States, is prone to forest fires. But this year's fires are close in scale to those of 2003 when more than 50,000 people had to flee their homes.

California itself has suffered widespread fires in recent days, with a lighting strike near Yosemite National Park sparking a blaze that destroyed more than 26 sq km of forest.