Favourable weather helps wildfire fight in Fort Nelson, B.C.

Predicted winds haven't materialized, giving firefighters a reprieve

Rob Fraser is confident he made the right decision.

On Friday night the mayor of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality, which includes Fort Nelson, in consultation with the B.C. Wildfire Service, ordered the evacuation of his entire community.

The same order was given to members of the Fort Nelson First Nation, affecting an estimated 4,700 people who were told to start driving south to Fort St. John, nearly 400 kilometres away.

The fear at the time was that the fast-growing Parker Lake wildfire, sparked after wind blew a tree into a power line, could quickly spread into the community, located near B.C.'s border with Yukon and the Northwest Territories, about 1,000 kilometres north of Vancouver and about 800 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

CBC - Parker Creek wildfire - Carlos Heffes

Smoke from the Parker Creek wildfire rises over Fort Nelson Secondary School on Friday, May 10, 2024, shortly before the community was ordered to evacuate. (Carlos Heffes)

As difficult as it's been for his friends and neighbours to live out of hotel rooms and RVs hundreds of kilometres away, Fraser knows things could have been a lot worse if not for favourable wind and the work of wildfire crews.

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"There could have been a whole lot more damage than there was," he said in a public meeting in Fort St. John on Wednesday afternoon.

"There were predictions it [the fire] would be in town on Monday, and it isn't. ... we're grateful for that."

CANADA'S WILDFIRES: Visit The Weather Network's wildfire hub to keep up with the latest on the active start to wildfire season across Canada.

He says he's also grateful that potential high winds forecast for the week didn't materialize, giving crews the chance to set up more defences and prepare to push back against the fire, rather than simply hope it doesn't come closer.

The B.C. Wildfire Service said early on Wednesday that there was potential for gusty winds to fan "aggressive" fire behaviour in the area.

But the latest report says overall conditions are favourable for firefighting. The fire is burning over an area of 127 square kilometres as of 6 p.m. local time on Wednesday.

CBC - Wildfires burning near Fort Nelson

Fire officials said Wednesday that cooler temperatures along with higher humidity should reduce the likelihood of intense fire activity.

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There's also potential for light rain, which would further lower the risk of the fire spreading closer to the town.

A fire camp located at the Fort Nelson airport is expected to be operational by Saturday, further bolstering the fight.

CBC - Smoke from Parker Lake fire - Submitted by Claude Normandeau

The smoke from the Parker Lake wildfire is seen from a surveillance camera in Fort Nelson, B.C., on May 10, 2024. (Submitted by Claude Normandeau)

Fraser had nothing but praise for fire crews.

"They've left their homes and come to our home to help us out," he said.

"All of those people that are up there, putting their lives on the line to protect our lives and property, I thank them from the bottom of my heart."

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The mayor also told community members that there was no estimated time for when they could return to Fort Nelson, and the fire still poses a threat to the community.

He also urged Fort Nelson residents who defied evacuation orders to limit their use of water, saying it could inhibit firefighting activity if excessive water is used by homes.

Damage to some structures confirmed

In response to a question from a community member, Fraser confirmed that some structures had been damaged due to the fire — but did not share how many properties were damaged, nor how badly they were affected.

He said officials still have to reach out to talk to property owners to inform them of the damage, and that firefighters haven't been able to conduct structural impact assessments yet.

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Fraser condemned some community members who shared pictures of what appeared to be fire-damaged houses on social media, calling the act "unconscionable."

Dry conditions fuel flames

Aside from Parker Lake, crews are also monitoring the Patry Creek fire, a blaze sparked in 2023 that has grown significantly after reigniting earlier this year.

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In a video update posted at 10 p.m. Tuesday, BCWS fire behaviour specialist Ben Boghean said the fire had experienced an "aggressive rate of spread" through Monday into Tuesday, bringing it to 25 km north of Fort Nelson, with Fraser saying the fire remained around 25 kilometres from the community on Wednesday evening.

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The fire, which went dormant over the winter before re-emerging earlier this year, was measured at around 718 square kilometres as of Wednesday evening at 6 p.m. local time.

David Clark from the B.C. Wildfire Service told the community meeting that firefighters had been identifying hotspots and fighting holdover fires as they re-emerged all spring — and that the presence of crews at the Patry Creek fire helped them respond to the sudden spread of the Parker Lake fire.

"Unfortunately, the case with these wildfires is that we are in very severe drought conditions," Clark said. "And ... with the severity of the drought, these trees are falling over and they're jackpotting. So they're piling on top of each other and that's creating conditions where [fire] can flare up."

CBC - BC wildfires - Kate Partridge

The scars of the province's record-breaking wildfire season are visible around the perimeter of the Great Beaver Lake wildfire in northeast B.C. in late October 2023, with the ground still smouldering. Holdover fires pose a threat amid drought conditions in B.C. (Kate Partridge/CBC)

Though it is not unusual for these "holdover" or "zombie" fires to smoulder again in the spring, the dry conditions in the northeast have made these returning fires particularly volatile, adding another layer of complexity to what is expected to be a difficult wildfire season ahead.

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B.C. is experiencing a record-low snowpack and drought has plagued much of the province — especially in the northeast — for months.

Doig River fire still close to community

Meanwhile, the Doig River First Nation posted its own update on a wildfire that forced the evacuation of its community, around 40 kilometres northeast of Fort St. John, on Tuesday.

The update, posted to Facebook, says the fire is still within 1.5 kilometres of the community — home to around 335 people — and was still at risk of growing rapidly due to volatile weather conditions.

Supports for evacuees

Members of Doig River First Nation in need of support have been directed to the emergency support centre in Fort St. John.

City spokesperson Ryan Harvey said Wednesday that the community, home to about 21,500 people, is supporting an estimated 3,000 evacuees from surrounding communities.

That high number means hotels are nearly full — and some evacuees have been asked to leave as hotels look to honour pre-made bookings.

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Those who are able have been encouraged to head to nearby Dawson Creek or Chetwynd, or travel farther to Prince George, about another 440 kilometres south by road. That city says it has received 231 evacuees.

The province has also established a 400-room camp in Sunset Prairie, 60 kilometres by road from Fort St. John, in dorm-style accommodation.

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This article was originally published for CBC News on Thursday, May 16. With files from The Canadian Press