Wildfires cause havoc in western Canada

Emergency crews struggled to slow the advance of forest fires on Saturday that have forced several thousand residents to flee their homes in the tinder-dry mountains of British Columbia.

Kamloop residents watch their forest go up in smoke.
Kamloop residents watch their forest go up in smoke.

Thick plumes of smoke rose from three fires near Kamloops, British Columbia, one of which was sparked by a discarded cigarette and is now feared to have destroyed as many as 75 structures and a sawmill in the communities of Louis Creek and Barriere, about 300 km northeast of Vancouver.

Premier Gordon Campbell has declared a state of emergency around Kamloops as crews struggled 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.

Discarded cigarette

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.

Western Europe has also seen a spate of bushfires.

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-acre blaze that began near the town of McLure on Wednesday, raced north through the hamlet of Louis Creek and reached Barriere about 25 km away from McLure by Friday afternoon.

Lighter winds

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

“The wind is cooperating. As long as it stays below 20 km per hour, we have a chance with this thing,” said Denis Gadrey of the British Columbia Forest Service.

Gadrey said the speed at which the fire spread on Friday was something he had never witnessed before in a decade of fighting wildfires.

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.

Portugal receives water aid

On the other side of the Atlantic the same combination of tinderbox dryness and strong winds have caused a similar catastrophe. Italy and Morocco sent water-bombing airplanes to Portugal on Saturday in response to an appeal for help in dousing dozens of forest fires.

“There hasn’t been such a combination of seriously adverse weather factors in living memory…”

-Portugal’s interior minister, Antonio Figueiredo Lopes

Commander Antonio Roaldinho, duty officer at the National Rescue Operations Centre, said two Canadair planes were on their way from Italy, each with a capacity of 4,500 litres.

Morocco had sent two C-130 aircraft, which can each hold 10,000 litres, and three smaller aircraft. Germany had offered to send water-bombing helicopters.

Roaldinho said more than 2,200 firefighters and soldiers were tackling 50 blazes across the country which have killed two people in the last week amid a sizzling heatwave that has seen temperatures exceed 40 degrees Celsius.

Interior Minister Antonio Figueiredo Lopes described as a “catastrophe” the combination of hot, dry weather and strong winds fanning the flames.

“There hasn’t been such a combination of seriously adverse weather factors in living memory, which makes fires break out in forests as if they sprouted from the ground,” Figueiredo Lopes told Portuguese news agency Lusa.

About a third of Portugal is covered with forest and the latest official figures show some 25,000 hectares of woodland have been burned so far this year.

Source: News Agencies

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