Hundreds of wildfires tear across western Canada and US, forcing thousands to flee

More than 200 fires are burning in British Columbia alone

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 July, 2017, 8:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 July, 2017, 8:45am

Wildfires barrelled across the baking landscape of the western US and Canada, destroying a smattering of homes, forcing thousands to flee and temporarily trapping children and counsellors at a California campground.

Firefighters were contending with more than 200 wildfires burning in the western Canadian province of British Columbia that had destroyed dozens of buildings, including several homes and two airport hangars. The three biggest fires, which ranged in size from 1,400 to 2,000 hectares, had forced thousands of people to flee.

“We are just, in many ways, at the beginning of the worst part of the fire season and we watch the weather, we watch the wind, and we pray for rain,” Premier Christy Clark told reporters in Kamloops.

Rob Schweizer, manager of the Kamloops Fire Centre, said it had been an unprecedented 24 hours.

“We probably haven’t seen this sort of activity that involves so many residences and people in the history of the province of BC,” he said.

In Northern California, a wildfire swept through grassy foothills in the Sierra Nevada and destroyed at least 10 structures and threatened more than 750 homes.

The blaze about 100km north of Sacramento grew rapidly to more than 1,800 hectares and was nearly 20 per cent contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“It made a huge run last night,” fire spokeswoman Mary Ann Aldrich said Sunday. She said additional homes were destroyed, but that fire officials have not had a chance to assess the damage. Instead, they were focused on protecting structures while battling the fire in hot, sometimes windy conditions.

“It’s far from out, we’re going to be here for several days if not more,” Aldrich said.

The area burning was about 16km south of Oroville, where spillways in the nation’s tallest dam began crumbling from heavy rains this winter and led to temporary evacuation orders for 200,000 residents downstream.

Authorities said the fire sent hundreds of people fleeing from their homes.

Southern California residents and campers were sent scrambling as two fires exploded in size at separate ends of Santa Barbara County.

Crews were getting a break from slightly cooler temperatures and diminishing winds Sunday as they battled the pair of blazes that destroyed structures and closed a highway.

One of the fires grew to 3,100 hectares, traversing a mountain range and heading south toward coastal Goleta.

“The plan is to hit it with air tankers to keep it from moving to the south and to the east,” said county fire Captain Dave Zaniboni. “There’s less heat and less wind, which makes things a little easier.”

There was minimal containment and flames shut down State Route 154, which is expected to remain closed for days. At least 20 structures burned, but officials didn’t say if they were homes.

Sarah Gustafson, who moved from Washington to California seven months ago, was out running errands when she saw the pillar of smoke rising near her home. She rushed to retrieve her six cats and then spent the night at a Red Cross shelter.

“It was terrifying,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “The sky was orange and black, you could see flames up on the ridge.”

About 90 children and 50 counsellors were stuck Saturday at the Circle V Ranch and had to take shelter until they could be safely evacuated. Buildings have burned but officials weren’t yet sure if they were homes.

Crews were also using an air attack against another blaze about 50 miles north that exploded in size to almost 1,000 hectares. About 200 rural homes east of Santa Maria were evacuated after the fire broke out Saturday and was fed by dry gusts.