Fort St. John, B.C., breathes easier as wildfire evacuation alert is lifted
Residents of Fort St. John in northeastern British Columbia breathed a collective sigh of relief after the city lifted its wildfire evacuation alert Wednesday, although more than 1,300 properties in the surrounding area remain under an evacuation order.
Toni Chittim, who lives with her husband and three children on a property 40 kilometres north of the city, said a blaze got so close to their home on Monday that flames were visible as they drove away.
"The embers from the trees were going into our yard," she said in an interview from a hotel in Fort St. John, as her home remains off-limits in the evacuation zone.
"That was a scary point."
Chittim's house was unscathed by the fire, as were five horses on the property, she said.
There were four fire trucks in the yard and firefighting helicopters overhead, on their way to drop water on the encroaching flames, she said.
"I did think the house was going to be gone that night," Chittim said.
"I laid in this hotel bed, thinking our house was burning down … But as long as everyone has each other, then that's all that matters. I'm in my hotel with my three children and the RV in the parking lot, with our clothes on our backs."
Chittim said she didn't know when her family will be allowed to return home.
Fort St. John Mayor Lilia Hansen said the city has opened recreational facilities to support evacuees from the 1,360 properties in the evacuation zone.
"I think if there's one kindness we can do, it's being there for when people are scared or they're uncertain what their future holds," Hansen said in an interview Wednesday. "There are a lot of evacuees with families."
Another 649 properties remain on evacuation alert just outside the city, with residents told to be ready to leave at short notice.
Hansen said the relief among the city's roughly 21,000 residents is palpable after Fort St. John rescinded its own evacuation alert as winds changed direction and halted the progression of the Stoddart Creek fire and smaller Red Creek blaze.
"I can tell you from the residents I'm talking to, it's a huge relief," she said. "Whether it's a text message I'm getting, or talking to people downtown, everybody is just grateful that our community and their homes and families are safe."
ThePeace River Regional District has noted hotel capacity in Fort St. John is very limited.
BC Wildfire Service information officer Hannah Swift told a briefing on Wednesday that the next 24 to 48 hours would be critical in the efforts to fight the Stoddart Creek fire, which is burning about 25 kilometres away from the city.
The blaze spans an estimated 215 square kilometres and Swift said crews were focusing on the southern flank, adding control lines between the fire and populated areas.
The number of personnel deployed to fires near Fort St. John grew Wednesday to nearly 500, and Swift said they were watching the forecast closely for another stretch of hotter conditions this week, with potentially problematic winds expected to arrive from the north or southeast.
A lull in dangerous weather had given firefighters a recovery day on Tuesday. Crews were able to conduct a controlled burn to remove just under one square kilometre of "unburned fuel" in the path of the fires that could have closed down Highway 97 north of the city, the wildfire service said.
While residents of Fort St. John are relieved with the lifting of the evacuation alert, the local MLA said evidence of wildfires is still apparent.
Dan Davies, who represents the Peace River North riding for the Opposition BC United, said smoke was still blanketing the city, where he could see for about 200 metres on Wednesday.
He said ash had been falling and his voice had become raspy with the heavy smoke that billowed into Fort St. John on Monday, as the city issued its now-rescinded alert and high winds pushed flames towards the city.
"You could see it in the air," he said of the falling ash. "It was on the cars. It was on everything. It (becomes) a little more real when you're starting to see ash."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2023.
Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press