06/19/2012 07:50 EDT | Updated 08/19/2012 05:12 EDT

Flood threat eases in Prince George, but Fraser River still poses danger

VICTORIA - About 1,000 forest firefighters are on standby in B.C., not to battle a raging inferno but instead, to pile sandbags as flood threats persist across British Columbia.

Justice Minister Shirley Bond said Tuesday melting snowpacks and heavy rains have much of the province on flood watch, especially in the Prince George, Okanagan and Fraser Valley areas.

She said with the Fraser River creeping up to 40-year flood levels at Prince George and expected to crest by Friday in the Fraser Valley, the province needs to be prepared.

"The key factor we're challenged with is weather," said Bond in what is expected to be regular flood watch briefings by Emergency Management BC and the River Forecast Centre.

"We are seeing large volumes of water in specific areas of the province," she said. "We're not looking at much relief in terms of the weather forecasts."

Bond said some of the preparations underway include installing three kilometres of portable, sand-filled dikes in a low-lying neighbourhood in Prince George and installing eight kilometres of similar portable dikes in agricultural areas near Chilliwack.

"We have about 1,000 wildfire firefighters who are specially trained and have rolled up their sleeves and are certainly available to lend a hand with sandbagging in communities," she said.

Bond said the province has a stockpile of two million sandbags, of which 700,000 are already in use.

Chilliwack area farmer John van den Brink said local farmers have their fingers crossed that a berm they helped build with some of their own money to hold back the Fraser holds this year.

The berm protects about 150 hectares of farmland that includes van den Brink's hazelnut farm, vineyards and blueberry farms, he said.

"We rebuilt the berm this year to protect the land behind the dike," said van den Brink, adding he and others paid $7,000 each after $50,000 in contributions from the province and local government.

"We're hoping it will hold," he said. "But if (the water) comes up (another) full metre, which they were talking about earlier, then it becomes another question."

Bond urged British Columbians to heed local evacuation notices, saying local residents must rely on the experts when it comes to floods and leave their homes when asked.

Chris Bone, spokeswoman for Prince George's emergency management, said about 20 people living in eight homes near a neighbourhood that is traditionally threatened by the Fraser River every spring have heeded this week's evacuation notice issued to 17 homes.

Bone said the river water is currently touching some of the homes, but local officials were breathing a momentary sigh of relief as the flood threat from the Fraser River appeared to ease slightly.

Bone said the river was expected to peak late Tuesday at levels just below flood levels of 40 years ago.

She said the Fraser high-water forecast at Prince George was dropped to 10.2 metres early Tuesday, which is below the 1972 peak of 10.4 metres and Monday's forecast of 10.8 metres.

"The good news for us today was the B.C. River Forecast Centre has revised its prediction," she said.

But Prince George could still face flood threats because warm weather followed by rain on the weekend is in the weather forecast, said Bone, which means at least two more weeks of potential high water.

David Jones, an Environment Canada weather specialist, said warm weather is expected for the next few days, followed by a low pressure system forecast to bring rains across the province starting late Friday and expected to last until mid-week.

The warm weather and rain could melt mountain snow packs and fill rivers, he said.

"We can say it's a pattern that can support rain, heavy at times," Jones said.

David Campbell, spokesman for the river forecast centre, said he expected the current Fraser River surge to reach the Fraser Valley at Mission, where the river level is measured, by Friday.

He said much of the Fraser Valley area has a dike system to withstand river levels of 8.89 metres, and the current forecast has the water level projected to reach 6.38 metres at Mission.

Campbell said warm weather followed by rains could see increased water flows in the Fraser Valley this weekend as area streams that flow into the Fraser experience increased levels.

He said depending on how much rain falls over the next few days, the potential for more high water on the Fraser remains.

Earlier, the river forecast centre issued a flood warning for the Fraser River from Quesnel to the Fraser Canyon, and the Shuns River around Enderby, B.C.

The City of Chilliwack put residents living on land outside the dike system on an evacuation alert.

Starlee Renton, a spokeswoman for the City of Chilliwack, said the evacuation alert covers about 200 properties and about 43 homes located between the dike system and Fraser River.