Wildfires cause havoc in Canada

 

Canadian emergency fire crews are struggling to slow the advance of forest fires that have forced several thousand residents to flee their homes in the tinder-dry mountains of British Columbia.

Premier Gordon Campbell has declared a state of emergency as crews struggle against fire conditions that some officials have described as the worst the province has seen in 50 years.

The weather forecast does not predict major rain in the area of south-central British Columbia until at least Tuesday, and officials appealed to people to stay out of the woods until the fire threat eases.

No deaths have been reported, but one man who had ignored the order on Friday to evacuate Barriere was seriously burned by the fire as he tried to protect a neighbour's property from being engulfed, medical officials told local media.

More than 300 fires are burning in British Columbia, which is about the size of Germany and France combined. Most are small, but more than a dozen are large fires and many of those are out of control.

Among the most dramatic fires was a 6,600-hectare (16,500-acre) blaze that began near the town of McLure on Wednesday, raced north through the hamlet of Louis Creek and reached Barriere about 15 miles (25 km) away from McLure by Friday afternoon.

The fire believed started by an improperly discarded cigarette continued past Barriere on Saturday, burning north, but at a somewhat slower pace because of a change in the windsthat were somewhat lighter than had been expected.

Emergency officials have estimated 8,500 people were forced from their homes because of the Kamloops-area blazes, but they later said they did not yet have an exact count because of the speed of the evacuations.

Police said it was not safe enough yet for people to return home.

The fires have also closed two major highways, destroyed an electrical transmission cable - cutting off power to an estimated 8,500 BC Hydro customers - and forced the Canadian National Railway to shut down its main line.

A fire that erupted near Kamloops on Friday afternoon continued to burn on a hill overlooking the city despite repeated attacks by waterbombing aircraft dropping a red fire retardant liquid.

Officials said the fire was burning away from a nearby residential area evacuated Friday, but they were reluctant to let people return to their homes in case unpredictable winds shift direction.

Evacuation shelters have been set up in Kamloops and several other communities.

In the Rocky Mountains of southwestern Alberta, an estimated 100 residents of Hillcrest have been kept from their homes since last weekend by a blaze that had expanded to 54 square miles (88 square km) despite an army of 800 firefighters trying to hold it back.