Firefighters risked their lives on Thursday night to rescue people who refused to leave their homes as the White Rock Lake wildfire threatened property in the B.C. Interior community of Monte Lake.
And, B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth did not mince words speaking to those “who think they know more than the experts.”
“Let me be clear, staying behind in an evacuated area not only risks your own life and the lives of your family, but it also risks the lives of the responders tasked with fighting the fire,” said Farnworth during a Friday news conference. “No property is worth risking lives.”
Farnworth said fire crews rescued a small group of people in Monte Lake who found themselves being overrun by the 45,000-hectare blaze’s rapid advance.
“These brave firefighters very nearly paid with their lives,” he said. “This experience was traumatic for all involved and should never have happened. By any measure, this is completely unacceptable.”
The White Rock Lake wildfire is now the BC Wildfire Service’s top priority. Farnworth said witnesses have reported structure loss in the Monte Lake area, but there is no indication at this point that anybody has died.
Evacuation orders are in effect for 2,500 properties across several regional districts and several thousand more are on evacuation alert. Farnworth said those orders reflect the fire’s tremendous growth “beyond all our expert’s projections.”
“With the extreme fire danger and behaviour we are facing… decisions may need to be made to move crews out of harm’s way,” he said.
Reports are circulating on social media that a hotel in the Vernon area is refusing to honour hotel vouchers given to evacuees by B.C. Emergency Support Services.
“It is just unacceptable for a hotel, with a voucher issued by the BC Wildfire Service, to not accept it,” said Farnworth, adding the issue will be dealt with “right away.”
In a Friday Facebook update, the Okanagan Indian Band told 1,050 members forced from their homes that flames from the White Rock Lake blaze could reach as high as 400 feet, calling the fire indefensible.
”The structural protection units will not protect occupied properties, so if any friends or relatives have not yet evacuated and they want their property to be eligible for protection you must evacuate now.”
Forests Minister Katrina Conroy said this is one of the most challenging wildfire seasons the province has ever experienced, adding, “We’re on the frontlines of climate change history right now.”
“The conditions are so extreme, the landscape is so dry and the heat and drought are extremely severe,” she said.
Since April 1, there have been 1,412 wildfires in B.C., with 303 still burning. In the last week alone, 136 new fires have sparked. More than 583,000 hectares have burned.
More than 3,600 wildfire personnel are fighting the blazes alongside local firefighters from across the province.
Around 12,000 people are currently on evacuation order, with Farnworth saying many are staying with friends or family. He’s confident the province will have enough spaces to provide accommodations for those who need them, pointing to the peak of around 60,000 evacuees during the 2017 wildfire season.