ASHCROFT, B.C. — Thousands of British Columbia residents have been chased from their homes as forest fires rage out of control in the province's central Interior.
The B.C. government has declared a provincewide state of emergency as firefighters scramble to keep up with 183 fires, many considered to be burning out of control.
The BC Wildfire Service says over 173 fires were reported on Friday alone as lightning storms rolled over several parts of B.C.
"Yesterday was an extraordinary day in terms of fire activity across the province," Kevin Skrepnek, chief information officer for the service, said in an interview on Saturday.
"We're focusing now on public safety, keeping these fires away from communities, protecting transportation routes, things like that."
B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone said the extraordinary measure of declaring an emergency was necessary to co-ordinate the crisis response and ensure public safety.
Crews focused Saturday on two of the largest fires that forced thousands from their homes in the communities of Ashcroft, Cache Creek, 100 Mile House, 105 Mile House and 108 Mile House and 150 Mile House.
A separate fire north of Princeton prompted an evacuation order involving dozens of people.
John Ranta, mayor of Cache Creek and head of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, said Friday that a fire burning between Ashcroft and Cache Creek destroyed dozens of buildings, including at least five houses, 30 trailer park homes and two hangers at a regional airport.
On Saturday, Ranta said no further structures were lost overnight.
"Things are looking at lot better here now," he said
Skrepnek said there had been multiple structures lost in the fires, but he couldn't give a figure.
Over 1,000 firefighters were working across the province, supported by heavy equipment and helicopters, he added.
"We are exploring options of bringing in crews from out of province as well."
He said the forecast is more of the same hot and dry weather, although the winds Saturday were not expected to be as strong as the gusty winds that fanned the flames on Friday.
Some who weren't ordered to leave their homes were ready just in case.
Country music blared on the radio as Gwen Dachsel waited in her home in Williams Lake on Saturday morning with the doors and windows shut, her car loaded with two bags of personal belongings.
Dachsel said the roads leading out of her community have been closed in most every direction, and the fear of not knowing what to do is almost as frightening as the fires themselves.
"If we had to really leave town, I don't know which way we would go," Dachsel said in a phone interview. "If I saw a flame, then I would (feel trapped). Then, I would panic."
The 72-year-old woman, who suffers from asthma, said her eyes stung and her breathing was heavy from smoke outside while she tried to water her plants. Her family photographs have been stored away in a fireproof safe, which Dachsel hopes will protect them if the house she has lived in for more than four decades goes up in flames.
"It would be quite a traumatic experience, and for my daughters too," Dachsel said. "It's life that matters, so hopefully they can control these fires and things will be OK."
Mike Flannigan, the Director of Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science, said the thunderstorms sweeping through the area brought little rain and set off fires with lightning strikes.
The thunderstorms also create a lot of wind, which fans the flames, he said.
"So this creates strong, shifting winds, which can be very dangerous for people and firefighters," he said.
"You really have to be on guard if there's thunderstorms around, if you're trying to do fire management."
Flannigan said it was a wet winter in B.C.
"And some people think: 'Hey, wet winter, we won't have a fire problem.' But that's not actually the case."
Several highways have been closed because of fires, including in several spots along Highway 1 between Ashcroft and Cache Creek, south of Quesnel and through Savona.
Theo Faber, a 39-year-old truck driver from Abbotsford, B.C., was on his way to get some lumber north of Cache Creek on Friday when he found himself stuck in heavy smoke and fire.
"My safest option was to keep going slowly," he said. "Fortunately, everyone was moving through. The smoke was very thick. I could barely see through it. There was fire in the ditches on both sides of my vehicle."
Faber said he would have "perished" if he had reached the highway 15 minutes later than he did.
"It was very scary," he said.
Premier-designate John Horgan described the situation in Interior communities like Cache Creek, Ashcroft and Williams Lake as "grave" and said the federal government is prepared to do whatever it can to help.
"The people already evacuated or facing evacuation, as well as our frontline firefighters and first responders, need to know everyone in the province is behind them," he said in a statement.