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Light rain welcome but Cameron Bluffs fire continues to grow

Despite slightly cooler temperatures on Friday, hot and dry weather is expected to return
The Cameron Bluffs wildfire on Vancouver Island as seen in a video shared June 8, 2023, by the BC Wildfire Service.

A small amount of rain Friday morning brought some reprieve for crews battling the out-of-control Cameron Bluffs wildfire, which has grown to 208 hectares in rugged, steep terrain on mid-Vancouver Island.

More rain could still show up — Environment Canada forecast a 70 per cent chance of showers Friday night, followed by 40 per cent chance of showers today for Port Alberni — but hot and dry weather is expected to return.

Bryce Moreira, fire incident commander, said Friday that firefighters are now seeing “just a little bit of open flame or smouldering ground fire, which is good news for the crews and all of us working on this fire compared to the last several days.”

Moreira said firefighters haven’t seen any noticeable growth to the east or west, with the majority of the growth on the southern side of the fire, going up the sloping area and away from the highway.

Friday’s cooler weather and higher humidity are allowing crews and equipment to work directly on the fire, he said, ­adding it’s too soon to predict when the blaze will be contained.

“We will still be working this fire for the next several days, knowing that the weather’s going to return to hot and dry and that could increase the fire activity.”

Some ground crews are ­dedicated to the west flank of the fire, the area closest to Cathedral Grove, where they are working with heavy equipment to gain access and suppress the fire where they can, Moreira said. Other crew members are on the north flank, which is on the Highway 4 side of the fire.

Resources on the fire Friday included four helicopters, which use buckets to scoop water from Cameron Lake to drop on the fire, eight pieces of heavy ­equipment, two crews and ­several initial attack crews, along with an incident ­management team.

As a crew of about 60 fought the fire on the ground Friday, with the help of helicopters, Highway 4 remained closed, ­cutting off the one paved route to the east side for ­communities on the Island’s west coast, including Port Alberni, Ucluelet and Tofino.

A dusty, bumpy detour on a forest service road being used by delivery trucks was closed for ­several hours starting at 1 p.m. Friday, in order to pull out a vehicle that went into a lake earlier in the week. Many drivers are avoiding the detour, described by the ­Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District as narrow, with sharp curves, single-lane bridges and challenging terrain. The ­Ministry of Transportation is also limiting trucks by weight on the detour.

Highway 4 is expected to remain closed throughout the weekend.

Debris ranging from full trees to boulders is coming down the slope onto a 1.5-kilometre section of the highway east of Cathedral Grove, in and around the Angel Rock area, said Janelle Staite, deputy director with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.

“There’s a lot of instability on the up slope that’s creating a concern onto the highway,” she said.

B.C. Wildfire Service personnel on the slope trying to contain the fire are accompanied by the ministry’s geotechnical engineering staff, who are assessing the stability of the slope, said Staite.

“So when we have the OK from B.C. Wildfire Service to bring in our maintenance contractor and any equipment, we understand what areas need to be addressed to enable us to reopen the highway.”

While the paved surface of the highway is intact, falling trees have dislodged road barriers, which will have to be put back in place, said Staite.

With the road shutdown continuing, Port Alberni-based businesses that rely on heavy trucks are looking at chartering barges to transport supplies and products in and out of their operations, says the city’s economic development manager.

After a brief shutdown, Paper Excellence is reopening its paper mill in the coming week, and normally has 100 trucks or more moving in and out per day, Pat Deakin said Friday.

Trucks used by the company are heavier than permitted by the province on the detour route.

The San Group Global Forestry Products similarly has a few dozen trucks going back and forth daily, Deakin said. San trucks carry lumber and valued-added wood products.

Jolleen Dick, chief executive of the Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce, said local dairy operations are worried that they could run out of feed for their animals. They can’t transport any livestock out of the area because they can’t take them over the detour route.

It’s been a busy week for the chamber, which dealt with more than 300 visitors and many phone calls the first full day the road was closed.

A shelter was quickly set up in Port Alberni when the highway closed, but most people have since made it out.

Travis Clem, manager of the non-profit Bread of Life community organization in Port Alberni, said items on grocery store shelves are dwindling. He visited three stores to find an item he wanted.

“The biggest concern with Port Alberni residents right now is how long is this going to be?” he said.

The Town of Qualicum Beach posted a notice on its website saying Iskwew Air has been hired by health authorities to carry doctors and other medical staff to Port Alberni because of the fire, starting Friday and into early next week.

Meanwhile, B.C. Air is using five charter planes to carry people between Qualicum and Port Alberni. The 20-minute flight costs $340 for a round-trip.

Passengers have included people wanting to make flights in Nanaimo or attend a celebration of life, and physicians, said airline manager Nancy Marshall.

— With files from Louise Dickson

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