Nanaimo Lakes wildfire puts 77 homes on evacuation alert

A wildfire at Nanaimo Lakes is spreading, evading the efforts of fire crews and sending some residents fleeing.

“We are pretty close to the fire right now, it’s across Nanaimo River Road, and just west of where we are,” said Juno-nominated musician David Gogo, whose family owns Gogo’s Christmas Tree Farm at 2625 South Forks Rd. It’s on a 65-hectare lot that’s under a Regional District of Nanaimo evacuation alert. “We are close enough to be quite concerned, it hasn’t rained here forever and it’s dry,” said Gogo. “Last night it got scary with thick smoke and ash in the air.”

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The Regional District of Nanaimo has issued evacuation orders and evacuation alerts to people living near the out-of-control wildfire, just southwest of the city of Nanaimo.

“The fire is still considered out of control. It’s pretty dynamic right now,” said Natasha Broznitsky, a public information officer for the Coastal Fire Centre.

The fire’s direction and strength depend on several factors, including wind conditions and fuel sources, she said.

It is burning on a mix of Crown and private forestry land, covering about 160 hectares on Tuesday evening, and spreading in a west to northwest direction, “which is good news for a small rural community east of the fire,” Broznitsky said. “We don’t want the fire to move a lot farther to the east.”

An evacuation order is in effect to the west of the fire, covering large parcels of land and at least one home, the Regional District of Nanaimo said. “The fire potentially threatens the life and property of persons resident or present in this area,” said the evacuation order. “Please leave this area immediately.”

The district issued an evacuation alert to the east of the fire, for an area with 77 homes, telling residents to be prepared to leave quickly. That includes these addresses:

• 2515-2630 Elk Trails Way

• 1565-2665 Nanaimo River Road

• 2375-2710 South Forks Road

• 2728-2796 Twilight Way

“Residents will be given as much advance notice as possible prior to evacuation; however, you may receive limited notice due to changing conditions,” said the alert.

No reception centre has been announced yet, said Bill Veenhof, board chairman of the regional district.

Veenhof said if a reception centre is announced, people might go there before it opens and be stranded. “We have a couple of places earmarked and we’re ready to move if we have to — I just hope we don’t have to,” he said.

If evacuation is needed, the City of Nanaimo would provide social services personnel to help, he said. With 77 residences under evacuation alert, the district is preparing for at least 150 people.

Veenhof said it is critical that residents prepare and if an evacuation order is issued to the 77 residences or beyond, people must heed the order and leave with their animals, medications, important documents and keepsakes.

There are four residences on Gogo’s Christmas Tree Farm land within the evacuation alert area. The family has set up pumps and hoses from a few ponds on the property and is ready to evacuate if necessary, said Gogo.

As of Tuesday night it was calm with clear skies and the family was hopeful.

“If the fire was to hit here, obviously we don’t want to lose our house and possessions, and the family business has been building up for a long time so it would be devastating to lose this whole thing,” said Gogo. The business started in 1897.

“The firefighters are doing a damn good job,” said Gogo. “We are confident with the people up here; the biggest thing will be to watch for the winds.”

Nanaimo resident Tina Coldwell said city dwellers are affected even though the fire is kilometres away. “I woke up to the sound of helicopters and the smell of smoke this morning and last night the smoke altered our dusk to an eerie yellowish haze,” she said. “People are nervous and worried and making it known they are willing to help, offering up trucks and homes if their friends or even mere acquaintances need it.”

Bill Sims, director of engineering and public works for Nanaimo, said the border of the fire poses a grave concern for the city’s water treatment plant about five kilometres away.

Sims is taking solace in the fact that trees are a distance from the plant, the building is made of non-combustible material and the B.C. Wildfire Service is on top of it — “they are all heroes,” said Sims.

“And we have the potential of deploying additional fire protection if it comes to that,” said Sims. “We’re very concerned but at the same time we’re confident that B.C. Wildfire will knock this thing down in time … but we want to have all plans in place in case things escalate uncontrollably.”

The Langford Fire Department issued an advisory about smoke drifting south from the Nanaimo Lakes wildfire. “You may smell smoke, but call 911 only if you see a distinct column of smoke or flames,” said the Langford Fire Department on its Twitter feed.

The Nanaimo Lakes wildfire was first reported the evening of Aug. 5 and efforts to contain it have grown with the blaze.

On Tuesday, there were 57 personnel battling the fire, up from 36 on Sunday; six helicopters, up from five; and several pieces of heavy equipment, such as excavators and bulldozers.

The heavy equipment is generally used to help dig control lines and conduct small-scale controlled burns to eliminate fuel between the fire’s edge and the control lines, Broznitsky said.

The fire is suspected to be human caused and remains under investigation, said Broznitsky.

Nanaimo RCMP were asked to clear people from a private campground near South Forks Road Monday evening, said Const. Gary O’Brien. “We were there until 9 p.m. last night,” he said Tuesday.

The Nanaimo Lakes wildfire is one of about 460 wildfires in all six of B.C.’s regional fire centres, many deemed out of control, as hot temperatures continue to grip much of the province.

Highs up to the mid-30s are forecast this week for inland Vancouver Island, and low 30s along the east coast.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

— With file from Mike Devlin

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