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Wildfire puts Williams Lake-area reserve on evacuation alert

Aggressive Puntzi Lake blaze destroys homes, resort
Puntzi Lake wildfire burns in B.C.'s Cariboo region.

Residents of the Red Stone First Nations reserve near Williams Lake have packed their clothes, medicines and personal treasures and are ready to flee at a moment's notice if an aggressive wildfire at Puntzi Lake starts heading their way.

The reserve, in the Cariboo, is on evacuation alert after the nearby Puntzi Lake wildfire doubled in size over the weekend, consuming 70 square kilometres and destroying the Woodland Caribou Resort, two permanent homes, a seasonal residence and several outbuildings.

"We have been going door to door getting people's names," said Agnes Case, who lives on the 300-member reserve. "We're pretty well prepared. People said they already got their pictures by the door ready to go."

Chief Percy Guichon, who flew over the fire in a helicopter Sunday, said the rain has helped dampen the fire's rage, making it seem innocent compared with the devastation it had wrought. One of the residents who lost his home, he said, had to flee so quickly that he only had time to grab the neighbour's dog and nothing else.

"The fire was right behind him, the power poles were burning," Guichon said. "He seems a little still in shock. It's incredible how quickly the fire moved."

An earlier evacuation order for about 50 properties on Puntzi Lake was expanded Saturday to include 40 more residences along the southwestern shore and the southern tip of the lake.

Al Richmond, chairman of the Cariboo Regional District, said Sunday most people displaced by the Punzi Lake fire had found places to stay with friends and relatives, but 18 displaced residents have sought help for accommodation with emergency social services. They have been provided with a hotel for 72 hours as well as food and clothing vouchers.

"This rain was a godsend," he said Sunday. "We're hoping a couple of cool days will help us."

Work is underway now to restore power to the area in preparation of getting people back home, Richmond said, but added he's worried that more seasonal homes and houses at the Red Stone First Nations could be next if the fire moves in an eastern direction.

B.C. wildfire officials said Sunday the Puntzi Lake fire was 30 per cent contained, but remains a top priority given the activity across the province in the past few weeks after record heat caused tinder dry conditions in the forests.

As of Sunday, 251 fires were blazing across B.C., 22 of them major. So far this year, the fire service has responded to 1,065 fires over 279,000 hectares — more than double the 462 wildfires reported in the same time period in 2014.

If the trend continues, this year could be worse than 2014, when fires consumed 3,600 square kilometres, the third worst fire season on record.

"It's been, needless to say, a busier than normal season so far," said fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek.

Some 67 new fires were ignited across the province on Friday — more than double the average of 30 new fires a day predicted by the forests minister last week, and the most in a single day so far this season — including 48 in the Southeast fire region and 18 in Kamloops, as thunderstorms swept across B.C. bringing lightning and gusty winds.

One of the those new lightning-caused fires prompted an evacuation alert for 35 homes on Saturday morning, following the seven-hectare Mount Aylwin fire, burning two kilometres south of Silverton in the Kootenay region.

"It's a bit of a double-edged sword," said Skrepnek. "We saw some cooler and wetter weather, but where we saw rain, we also saw lightning."

More than $103 million has already been spent on fighting wildfires this year.

Meanwhile, 52 firefighters from Australia are expected to arrive in B.C. on Monday, to join others from Ontario and the Maritimes and help bolster the 1,700 people already working on fires across the province. Skrepnek said although the rain has helped in the past few days, residents should remain alert.

"It does appear we've got a bit of reprieve from the current situation and that's going to allow us to make some progress. But the weather is fickle," he said. "A few days of rain isn't necessarily going to hit the reset button on this. We are still seeing challenging conditions out there."

Richmond urged residents and visitors to take extreme caution with cigarette butts and to abide a provincewide campfire ban.

Meanwhile, the 70-year-old Martin Mars water bomber is officially on standby to assist with the fires. The huge Mars, which has not fought forest fires for two years, is operated by the Coulson Group in Port Alberni.

As of 2 p.m. Sunday, the Martin Mars had not been assigned to a fire, as officials were still determining where to send the tanker stationed at Sproat Lake. It can only land on and scoop up water from 113 large water bodies in B.C., so it isn't feasible to use for some of the more aggressive fires.

"It needs a large body of water, so I'm not sure it can be used for the Puntzi Lake fire," said Skrepnek.

The province signed a contract to use the Martin Mars for one month at a cost of $450,000. In addition, it costs $11,000 a day to operate the aircraft.