Canadian wildfires force thousands to flee homes

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Emergency crews struggled on Sunday to contain two wildfires that have forced thousands of residents of a western Canadian community to flee their homes.

A forest fire burns on the edge of Kelowna, British Columbia, northeast of Vancouver at dawn July 19, 2009. A fast-growing wild fire has forced thousands of residents of a western Canadian community to flee their homes, officials said on Sunday. The blaze erupted Saturday afternoon, quickly consuming at least 300 hectares and destroying at least nine houses in a residential area. REUTERS/Andy Clark

The flames that spread quickly after they erupted on Saturday have destroyed at least nine buildings in residential areas in the hills along Okanagan Lake west of Kelowna, British Columbia, provincial fire officials said.

No injuries or deaths were reported.

An estimated 17,000 people have been ordered to evacuate and hundreds of other residents were warned to be on alert to leave their homes if the flames continue to spread in the tinder-dry conditions.

The largest of the fires had already burned at least 300 hectares (741 acres), and none of the blazes were under control, according to officials.

A Kelowna newspaper reported on Sunday that officials were concerned the blaze could cut a key electrical transmission line, which could force additional evacuations in an area of some 32,000 residents west of the city.

Police said the cause of fires was not known, but the provincial fire service said they did not believe them to be related.

The blazes cast an orange glow in the night sky with residents waking in the morning to a valley filled with smoke, according to a Reuters photographer in the area.

Officials said the winds pushed the flames across the dry landscape made it dangerous for ground crews to battle the blaze. Adding fuel to the fire were trees in the area that have been killed by an infestation of pine beetles.

Helicopters dropping water and fire retardant backed up more than 200 firefighters on the ground, and more emergency personnel were being rushed to the area, officials in Kelowna told reporters.

The cause of the fires was not known, but human activity was suspected because there were no lightening storms in the area when the blazes started, according to media in the Kelowna area, which is about a 400 km (248.5 miles) drive east of Vancouver.

Emergency officials were dealing with the situation using plans that were developed after the Kelowna area was struck by massive wildfires that destroyed more than 240 homes in 2003.

Reporting by Allan Dowd; Editing by Sandra Maler