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Wildfire traps campers in southern B.C. backcountry

About 80 campers have been evacuated from Cathedral Provincial Park in southern British Columbia after being trapped overnight by a nearby wildfire.

About 80 campers have been evacuated from Cathedral Provincial Park in southern British Columbia after being trapped overnight by a nearby wildfire.

Dale Bojahra, a co-ordination officer with the BC Wildfire Service, told a news conference Wednesday that an increase in wind speed a day earlier triggered a “dramatic increase in fire behaviour” by the Casper Creek wildfire and the nearby Gillanders Creek blaze.

An evacuation order was issued as the fires grew from a combined 11 square kilometres early Tuesday to what the wildfire service estimates is now 100 square kilometres. Bojahra noted that the two fires have combined into one blaze, now called the Crater Creek wildfire.

Officials initially said the nearby Cathedral Lakes Lodge was not in immediate danger and that conditions on the rough access road, including wildfire debris, meant that sheltering in place was the best option for campers and staff trapped there while an evacuation plan was formed.

Brittany Seibert, an emergency program co-ordinator with the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, told the conference that a route out of the park was cleared by wildfire service staff Wednesday and a convoy carrying the campers left around 1 p.m.

She said the district is aware of one person who was hiking in the area, and search and rescue is actively working to bring them to safety.

“We have worked very diligently on that today and we’re feeling quite confident we have managed to identify and notify, and get people out,” Seibert told the news conference.

Late Wednesday, the district issued an evacuation alert for up to 4,800 properties in West Kelowna, Westbank First Nation and the Central Okanagan West Electoral Area.

Wildfire crews across B.C. are bracing for a cold front from the northwest due Thursday that will meet a ridge of high-pressure air currently sitting over B.C., which has caused record-breaking temperatures and dry winds. The BC Wildfire Service has said this will create even stronger winds, dry lightning and a greater potential for new fire starts.

BC Wildfire Service superintendent Neal McLoughlin released a public service announcement Wednesday, saying they were “very concerned” about the forecast.

“Our firefighting crews and suppression operations have been working very diligently to secure guard on active wildfires throughout the province,” he said. “We would like to alert the public that there could be rapidly evolving fire behaviour and fire behaviour that could spread very quickly across the landscape.”

In Keremeos, Bojahra said crews are preparing for what that could mean for the rapidly growing Crater Creek fire.

“Wind is incredibly impactful on wildfires, especially when it aligns with the slope,” he said. “We’ll be watching that very closely tomorrow afternoon.”

He said wildfire service meteorologists have predicted the cold front will pass through the area around 5 p.m. Thursday, but cautioned the timing is still a rough estimate and is likely to change.

Erick Thompson, an information officer with the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, previously said the Crater Creek fire had forced evacuation orders for 13 properties along the Ashnola River and in the Snowy Protected Area of Cathedral Provincial Park, as well as Cathedral Lakes Lodge.

He also confirmed residents in 74 other properties along the Similkameen River west of Keremeos were told to be ready to leave on short notice.

“Things did move very quickly,” Thompson said, describing the fire behaviour as “challenging.”

“There was an evacuation alert put in place at approximately 5 p.m., under the advice of the BC Wildfire Service,” Thompson said. “From there until there was an evacuation order put in place at 10:15 p.m., certainly conditions changed.”

Thompson said 20 campers evacuated from a recreational campsite on Buckhorn Creek after midnight.

A separate fire, west of Lillooet, also grew more threatening on Tuesday, prompting renewed evacuation orders and alerts for the communities of Shalath and Seton Portage, along Seton and Anderson Lakes.

The wildfire service website said it was close to lifting evacuation orders covering more than 200 properties around Gun Lake, north of Pemberton, where the 26-square-kilometre Downton Lake fire has destroyed three properties, but because of the incoming wind and potential lightning, those plans had been stalled.

The website showed roughly 370 blazes across B.C. late Wednesday, including about 150 ranked as out of control.

The wildfire danger rating has climbed to high or extreme across the southern third of the province and a large section of the central Interior as a heat wave brings sweltering temperatures to those regions.