We’re stretched to the limit: wildfires burn in B.C., ravage Fort McMurray

British Columbia won’t send significant support to Alberta as it battles massive forest fires in the Fort McMurray area because fires raging within its own borders are tying up resources.

On Wednesday afternoon, there were 85 fires burning across B.C., with the majority concentrated in the Peace River region near Fort St. John. Eight new fires started Tuesday, the B.C. Wildfire Service said. Here is a map of fires now in progress.

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Premier Christy Clark said her government will do everything it can to help Alberta, while focusing attention locally.

“Unfortunately, we are so busy with 48 fires now in the Peace in British Columbia that we just really don't have any more resources that we can assist in Alberta,” she said.

“But everything that we can do, everything that they’ve asked us to do, we are doing it, because Alberta’s our closest friend in Canada.

“They were there for us in 2003 in Kelowna and we want to be there for them.”

The B.C. Wildfire Service has offered air tankers, 100 pumps and fire hoses to Alberta.

Since April 1, 203 fires have broken out in B.C., burning more than 23,000 hectares. That’s a leap from the 10-year average of 120 fires burning 1,168 hectares, said Kevin Skrepnek, chief fire information officer for the B.C. Wildfire Service.

All but four of the fires are believed to be human-caused, with unusually hot, dry and windy conditions being a major factor, he said.

There are five evacuation alerts in place, affecting about 325 residences.

Donna McPherson, fire information officer for the Coastal Fire Centre in Parksville, said 34 firefighters from the Island were en route to Prince George Wednesday. The first wave of support, which left about two weeks ago, is returning to the Island soon for a rest.

She said B.C. firefighting crews’ thoughts are with those in Fort McMurray.

“The wildfire family is actually quite small and we look to each other and the difficulties other places are having in Canada with a sympathetic eye,” McPherson said. “We understand how difficult it is for the people who are being evacuated. You hear stories and they bring an echo back of what you know.”

One Island contribution to Fort McMurray is a Sikorsky helicopter, owned by Port Alberni-based Coulson Group and contracted by the province of Alberta.

The Sikorsky arrived in Alberta at 9 p.m. Tuesday and its crew was on the fire line at daybreak Wednesday, company chief executive Wayne Coulson said.

“It’s a multi-purpose helicopter,” he said.

“We pack 18 firefighters. We have the capability to rappel firefighters from the front door of it.

“We also carry a 200-foot long line with a 4,000-litre bucket.”

That means the helicopter can do a bit of everything, Coulson said. “On a fire we’re kind of running around moving people and slinging water and [giving] what other support is required.”

A second Sikorsky will return from a contract in Australia next week and could be dispatched if needed, Coulson said. The company can also provide a Martin Mars water bomber that has a long history of fighting fires, but it has not yet been called on.

Other Island emergency responders, including the Victoria and Langford fire chiefs, said they were ready to lend support if called on by the province.

The B.C. Red Cross has volunteers on standby and has offered the services of its Burnaby-based call centre, so evacuees can check-in and connect with family members, said communications manager Cheekwan Ho.

It is also accepting financial donations.

B.C. Forests Minister Steve Thomson said the province is in the process of training more firefighters, who will be available soon.

“Depending on how the situation develops, as soon as those resources are available, if they’re still required we’ll make them available through our inter-agency agreements.”

He said Alberta understands that B.C. needs to focus its attention and resources on the fires in the Peace River area.

“We can’t take resources away from our priorities and protecting our communities in the Peace River. That’s where we need to focus the resources. Alberta understands that.”

asmart@timescolonist.com

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