WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. — Thousands of Williams Lake, B.C., residents are being forced from their homes as high winds fan a wildfire burning next to the community.
An evacuation order was issued Saturday evening for the entire City of Williams Lake and numerous surrounding areas including the village of 150 Mile House that have been under threat from nearby fires for almost a week.
Cariboo Regional District Chairman 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.
Officials previously said forecast lightning and wind gusts of up to 70 km/h starting Saturday and developing into Sunday could cause a substantial increase in wildfire activity in British Columbia's central and southern Interior.
BC Wildfire Service said Saturday there are about 161 active wildfires in the province, 14 of which pose a direct threat to communities.
Raging wildfires have already displaced more than 17,000 people, while the provincial government says another 27,000 people have been told they may need to leave their homes at a moment's notice.
Many of Williams Lake's 11,000 residents had left voluntarily in recent days, however the order means thousands more will be headed to safety in Kamloops and other cities.
RCMP said road closures due to the fire means people driving out of the city must take Highways 97, 24 and 5 to get to Kamloops.
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.
MP Todd Doherty told a group of evacuees in Prince George, who left their homes earlier this week, to urge others still in Williams Lake to stay calm and get to safety.
"If you are talking to your friends and family in the Williams Lake area as I am still trying to get my mom and relatives out of that area, very stubborn. It's very stressful, we need them to evacuate, we need them to be safe," he said.
With the rise in evacuees, the provincial government said more volunteers are needed in Kamloops to help the Canadian Disaster Animal Response Team, as well as a 24-hour animal shelter and runners to complete errands. Volunteers can contact 250-938-2211 for more information.
Kevin Skrepnek, B.C.'s chief fire information officer, said gusty winds were expected to trigger extreme and violently aggressive fire behaviour.
He said crews had been preparing for the winds by conducting controlled burns in the fire path near the communities of Williams Lake, 100 Mile House and 150 Mile House to prevent the fires from spreading.
"It looks like that has worked in most of these incidents in creating a fuel-free area," he said, adding that high wind speeds could still move embers beyond the controlled areas, spreading the fires.
Fire Information Officer Melanie Morin said stronger winds in the Thompson-Nicola area Saturday afternoon were causing fires to become "more critical than in recent days."
The Thompson-Nicola Regional District issued an evacuation order Saturday night for properties in Electoral Area "A," while the District of Clearwater and the Central Okanagan Regional District 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."
Horgan 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."
Since April 1, the province has seen 631 fires scorching 128,000 hectares of land. An estimated $77 million has already been spent on fire suppression, and the cost of supporting evacuees has yet to be tallied.
—By Linda Givetash in Vancouver
The Canadian Press