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B.C. town preps 'last stand' as wildfires rage across Western Canada

Rob Fraser did not sugarcoat the situation facing Fort Nelson, B.C., as forecasts called for westerly winds to pick up in northeastern British Columbia late Sunday and turn a menacing nearby wildfire into a dire threat.
The mayor of a northeast British Columbia municipality where thousands have already evacuated says his community is bracing for a "last stand" as high winds are expected to push a nearby wildfire directly toward the town. The Aurora Borealis shines overhead of a B.C. Conservation Officer Service vehicle near the junction of highways 97 and 77, as a wildfire burns in the background near Fort Nelson, B.C., in a Saturday, May 11, 2024, handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Rob Fraser did not sugarcoat the situation facing Fort Nelson, B.C., as forecasts called for westerly winds to pick up in northeastern British Columbia late Sunday and turn a menacing nearby wildfire into a dire threat. 

Fraser, mayor of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality based in Fort Nelson, said fire crews and emergency workers are preparing a "last stand" for the possibility that strong winds will push the nearby Parker Lake wildfire directly into the town itself.

"Now that's the exact worst-case scenario," Fraser said of the projected winds, which are expected to increase to 20km/h before potentially producing gusts of up to 50 km/h by Monday. "The fire is two to three kilometres away, and if we get winds from the west anything like we did on Friday — the day that this fire sparked up — it's going to be extremely difficult to keep it from moving into the community."

The Parker Lake fire, last measured at 41 square kilometres on Sunday afternoon, is one of several out-of-control wildfires in Western Canada threatening nearby communities in provinces such as Alberta and Manitoba.

Fires are burning near Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie in Alberta, while officials in Manitoba have evacuated about 500 people from the community of Cranberry Portage some 700 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

In B.C., about 3,500 people have already evacuated from Fort Nelson after an order to leave was issued Friday evening in light of the fast-growing Parker Lake fire, with many residents temporarily relocating hundreds of kilometres to the south to Fort St John or Prince George, B.C.

But Fraser said as of Sunday there were still about 37 households in Fort Nelson proper and another 28 in the surrounding rural area which have not heeded an order to evacuate, totalling between 100 and 150 people.

Fraser urged those residents to leave immediately, warning local resources like water pressure and electricity may diminish or stop outright for public use since much of the supply will be directed to support firefighters trying to suppress the wildfire.

"We've got a deteriorating situation, and it's likely that as we set up our sprinkler systems and structural protection around the community, water pressure will likely go down," Fraser said. 

"And there's even the potential for us to lose electricity. So they'll be at their homes thinking that they're going to be able to use their own sprinklers, electric pumps and that sort of thing to help themselves, and they'll find that the resources that they need are gone."

A statement from the BC Wildfire Service said that while operational and command staff will stay in Fort Nelson "as long as it is safe to do so," the municipality's emergency operations centre has moved out of the town to a site Fraser described as about 250 kilometres south on the Alaska Highway.

"To ensure business continuity and continued response of this evolving situation, support staff from the BC Wildfire Service Incident Management Team and members of the local Emergency Operations Centre have departed Fort Nelson," the statement said.

The Northern Rockies Regional Municipality issued an update warning the wind "has the real potential to significantly increase the size of the fires over the next 48 hours."

"Know that the decision to evacuate has not been made lightly and is based on careful assessment and expert advice, with the safety of residents being at the forefront," the update said.

"At this time, all residents who are currently remaining within the community are strongly urged to reconsider and evacuate immediately. You are our friends, family and neighbours. Please stay safe."

Fraser said the smoke in Fort Nelson was so thick Sunday and air quality was poor even in indoor spaces, and people's eyes can become irritated within moments of stepping outside.

With the Parker Lake fire directly to the west of the community, Fraser said there's little crews can do if strong westerly winds develop as forecasted.

"Just pray that the winds don't come from the west," he said. "Maybe they go northwest which will help to blow it south of the community, and that would really help us. 

"But we're as ready as we can be with the assistance from the province to make a last stand."

In Yukon, telecommunications and 911 services have mostly been restored after being knocked out by the Fort Nelson wildfire on Friday, government spokeswoman Julia Duchesne said.

A news release from the city of Yellowknife said disrupted services in the Northwest Territories had also been restored. Duchesne, however, warned of possible future disruptions in Yukon as the fire situation in B.C. evolves.

The Alaska Highway linking Yukon with the rest of Canada also remains closed, and motorists are advised to consider alternatives such as the Stewart-Cassiar Highway.

In Manitoba, a provincial bulletin Sunday said wildfire near Flin Flon that forced the evacuation of Cranberry Portage grew exponentially over the weekend, jumping from 0.2 square kilometres on Thursday to 20 square kilometres Friday then ballooning to its current size of 350 square kilometres.

"Approximately 500 residents are affected at this time, but that number may increase as conditions change," the province's statement said regarding the people evacuated from Cranberry Portage, adding that another wildfire is burning north of The Pas, Man., threatening hydro lines.

The province said the fires are fed by high winds and drought conditions, and people in the surrounding area should be prepared to leave if the situation deteriorates.

The wildfire has also damaged infrastructure in the area that could disrupt telecommunication, road and rail links near Flin Flon, the province said, noting Highway 10 linking the city to Cranberry Portage is already closed.

In Alberta, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo has maintained an alert for Fort McMurray residents to be ready to evacuate on short notice, as the fire 16 kilometres to the southwest has reached 55 square kilometres in size.

"This wildfire grew substantially to the southeast yesterday, driven by strong winds," Alberta Wildfire said in an update. "Fire behaviour is subdued this morning, but is expected to increase today as the temperature increases."

In Grande Prairie, the nearby fire was four kilometres east of the community at 14 square kilometres in size. 

The wildfires across Western Canada have created poor air quality in a number of regions spanning Manitoba to British Columbia, with Environment Canada reporting "very high risk" — or level 10-plus — on the air quality health index for Edmonton and Winnipeg on Sunday.

The weather agency said other communities that suffered high risks in their air quality Sunday include Fort St. John, B.C.; Medicine Hat, Drayton Valley and Cold Lake in Alberta; and Swift Current, Sask.

Environment Canada said the very poor air quality is expected to improve in most places by Monday, with Edmonton and Calgary both dropping back to moderate risk on the air-quality health index.

Edmonton activated its poor air-quality response on Sunday, which sees the city open municipal facilities, like recreation centres, for anyone needing respite from the smoke. 

The Edmonton Elks CFL team moved its scheduled practice indoors on Sunday, but fan festivities outside Rogers Place arena where the Edmonton Oilers were scheduled to play the third game of their NHL playoff series against the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday evening were still a "go."

"Obviously we continue to monitor the situation, and really it's up to fans. If they feel comfortable coming down, then we welcome them," said Kevin Rapanos of OEG Sports and Entertainment, acknowledging it might be hard to stop them.

"Our fans are super-passionate, especially this time of year."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2024.

Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press

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