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Mayor warns evacuees of Fort Nelson wildfires against premature return

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Residents of the northeast British Columbia community, thousands of whom have been forced to evacuate due to wildfires, are being warned not to return home early.

Rob Fraser, mayor of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality, which includes Fort Nelson, said that while authorities were working hard to allow residents to return before next Tuesday, it was “not safe at this time.”

“It does us no good if people come onto the highway and to the roadblock without permission,” Fraser said in a video update on Friday evening.

“As we implement our plan, people who are hasty and come too early and do not have authorization will be denied passage through the checkpoint.”

If people wanted to return earlier, there could be queues on the highway, hindering medical staff who needed to get through, Fraser said.

“If you come and get stopped at the checkpoint, you are only delaying our ability to integrate people back into the community,” he said.

“As simple as that.”

Fraser said the last major hurdle is resuming emergency room operations at Fort Nelson Hospital.

Fraser told the community in Taylor, British Columbia, 400 kilometers south of Fort Nelson, on Friday that water, sewer and electricity supplies, as well as police services, had largely been restored.

However, he said medical care would be gradually restored and that residents would need to consider postponing their return if they required specialized medical care.

In the meantime, Fraser is urging all evacuees to stay home and not rush home to Fort Nelson until the evacuation order is officially lifted.

“I want all of you home,” he told the evacuees. “I want our businesses back up and running … and I want our economy back up and running. As soon as I get word that all the health and safety and medical care requirements are met, we will lift this order.”

The BC Wildfire Service said in its update Friday that the next chance of rain that could help with firefighting will occur on Sunday, with up to six millimetres possible.

Since May 10, when strong winds pushed the Parker Lake forest fire to within a few kilometers of the city, about 4,700 residents have been evacuated from Fort Nelson.

Hugh Murdoch, wildland fire operations chief at Fort Nelson, told evacuees on Friday that the behavior of the fires in recent days had been “dramatically different” from what led to the evacuations two weeks ago.

Murdoch said that while the weather at the end of the week was warm and dry, there was very little wind, which he described as “helpful” for the wildfire situation around Fort Nelson.

The wind direction also favors good visibility for helicopters when conducting air operations, he said.

“There is nowhere near fire across the landscape, but some places are seeing it again,” Murdoch said. “With those east-southeast winds driving the fire away from your community, it will also ensure the cleanest air possible for our air resources.”

As the province announced on Friday, there are currently 112 forest fires raging in British Columbia, of which only two broke out in the last 24 hours and 39 were declared extinguished in the past week.

Ten fires in the province were still out of control on Friday evening.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2024.

The Canadian Press