British Columbia extends emergency status again as wildfires rage

(Reuters) - The Canadian province of British Columbia on Friday extended a state of emergency by two weeks for a second time as it battled 123 fires that have forced as many as 45,000 people to flee their homes.

FILE PHOTO - A wildfire burns north east of the town of Cache Creek, British Columbia, Canada on July 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ben Nelms/File Photo

Since April 1, 872 fires across the province have charred an estimated 509,000 hectares (1.3 million acres) and destroyed 305 structures, officials said, including homes, sheds, barns, and commercial buildings. Some 115 burnt structures have not been identified.

British Columbia chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek said on a conference call that hot, dry weather conditions were forecast into the weekend, with a chance of lightning.

Thunder showers and lightning are expected from Monday to Wednesday, he said. “Given how dry it’s been, if it doesn’t come with a significant amount of rain, we’re likely going to see a number of new fires.”

The fires have cost the province C$211.7 million ($167.37 million) so far this fire season, Skrepnek said.

While many evacuees have since been allowed back to their homes, British Columbia’s government said there were still 25 evacuation orders affecting about 7,100 people, and there were roughly 25,000 people under a less serious form of notice, an evacuation alert.

The state of emergency, which grants the authorities more powers, will be extended until Aug. 18, following a previous extension on July 19, the government said.

British Columbia has not declared a state of emergency since 2003.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokeswoman Dawn Roberts said officers have been investigating mischief and theft cases involving firefighting equipment.

“They are seriously impacting the safety of others,” she said. “We are asking people to do the right thing: if they come across firefighting equipment, leave it alone.”

Firefighters from Mexico and the United States were due to arrive in British Columbia this week to help tackle the flames.

Mexico will send 108 firefighters and the United States will send 27 to join a force of nearly 4,000 battling blazes that have shut sawmills and mines and forced thousands from their homes. It is so far the province’s third-worst fire season on record, based on area burnt.

British Columbia said on Friday it would provide each evacuee household with $600, which will be renewed every 14 days until they return to their homes.

Reporting by Ethan Lou in Calgary, Alberta; editing by Bernadette Baum