British Columbia

Fort Nelson-area mayor 'ecstatic' as rain, snow falls on nearby fires

The mayor of the region around Fort Nelson says he's "ecstatic" after rain began falling on the northeastern B.C. town that has been threatened by wildfires for almost a week.

Structures have been burned but extent of damage unknown

A man in a trucker hat stand on a road smiling.
Rob Fraser stands on a highway south of Fort Nelson, B.C., on Thursday morning as rain falls on the town threatened by wildfires. (CBC News)

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The mayor of the region around Fort Nelson says he's "ecstatic" after rain began falling on the northeastern B.C. town that has been threatened by wildfires for almost a week, but he is also saddened by reports of structural damage. 

Northern Rockies Regional Municipality (NRRM) Mayor Rob Fraser says fires, including the Parker Lake wildfire that forced thousands of residents to evacuate their homes, are now being better controlled.

"It's been raining for several hours here so we're extremely ecstatic about that," Fraser told CBC News from south of the town around 6:30 a.m. MT Thursday. He equated the effect of the rain as similar to a "garden hose sprinkler" over the region.

Environment Canada was forecasting rain and wet flurries for the region through Thursday and into Friday morning, and highway cameras stationed 80 kilometres northwest and 175 kilometres north of Fort Nelson both showed snow falling Thursday morning and still on the ground Thursday afternoon.

But the B.C. Wildfire Service has cautioned that while the wetter, cooler conditions would help their fight against wildfires in the region, they would not be enough to "offset the prolonged drought and cause the fires to self-extinguish."

It also warned that shifting wind was likely to start blowing smoke toward crews fighting the fire, which would "challenge visibility for aircraft."

WATCH | Rain helping to corral wildfires in northeastern B.C., mayor says: 

Mayor says rainfall is welcome boost in fight against wildfires threatening Fort Nelson

2 months ago
Duration 7:50
Northern Rockies Regional Municipality Mayor Rob Fraser says he's ecstatic after rain fell for several hours over northeastern B.C. on Thursday morning to help calm wildfires in the area. But he said there is no timeline on when thousands of evacuated residents will be able to return as the situation is still unpredictable.

Structures damaged by flames

Residents, officials and wildfire crews alike have had their eyes on the weather all week as the Parker Lake fire came to around two kilometres of Fort Nelson's western boundary.

As of Thursday afternoon, the fire measured 127 square kilometres in size and still classified as out of control by the B.C. Wildfire Service (BCWS). 

The flames forced the evacuation of more than 4,500 people from Fort Nelson and the Fort Nelson First Nation last Friday, just hours after it was sparked by high winds blowing a tree onto a power line.

Fraser said crews battling the fire have "gone off the defensive and now they're on the offensive."

"So they've corralled it and, in this weather, I hope they can kill it," he said.

He also confirmed that several buildings outside of town had been damaged by the flames.

Images of the damage had been circulating on social media, which bothered the mayor, who said crews had been unable to fully assess the extent of the damage.

Snow on a road.
Snow on a highway camera at Steamboat Hill on Hwy 97, about 80 kilometres northwest of Fort Nelson, looking west, at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday. (Drive B.C.)

He wished more information could have been gathered and shared with the building owners before the news went public.

"Could you imagine, for the first time, seeing that structures on your property have been damaged because you saw it on social media? It's just, it's tragic," he said.

"It sort of forced our hand … We wanted to ease the folks into that a little bit."

Other fires a concern

Parker Lake is not the only fire burning in B.C.'s parched northeast, which has been experiencing drought and low precipitation since last year.

This week the huge, fast-moving Patry Creek wildfire to the north of the town moved closer to Fort Nelson and is still giving Fraser concern, though it's not yet considered a threat.

"It's organized, it's got a big flame front and it moved to within 25 kilometres of the community to the north," said Fraser. 

That fire prompted evacuation about 80 properties north of Fort Nelson and the Fort Nelson First Nation on Monday. It is now nearly 720 square kilometres in size, according to a BCWS update on Thursday.

"The wildfire service says it's not a threat to us right now. It's burning up against a fairly large swamp, which is sort of holding it, and then the river is also holding it," he said.

"[But] it's a concern. We're always looking over our left shoulder to see what's happening over there."

Around 300 members of the Doig River First Nation, near Fort St. John, are also out of their homes following an evacuation order issued Monday.

The fire, numbered G80305 was classified as "being held" Thursday and mapped at 6.5 square kilometres on Wednesday afternoon, the BCWS said.

However, in an update posted at 2:30 p.m. MT on Thursday, the Doig River First Nation said the fire is still burning close to the community and they are not yet comfortable allowing people to return to their homes.

No timeline for residents' return

Fraser says there is no timeline on when the thousands of residents ordered to evacuate nearly a week ago will be able to return, due to the unpredictability of both fires.

"There's not a lot of sense in bringing people back for just a couple of days and then asking them all to leave again," he said.

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Fraser says once BCWS says it is safe, the town will take a "step-by-step" approach to ensure essential services like the hospital, ambulances, police, grocery stores and gas stations are operating before rescinding the evacuation order and allowing residents to return.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the evacuation ordered for members of the Doig River First Nation was prompted by the Patry Creek wildfire. In fact, the evacuation order was caused by a fire known by its number: G80305.
    May 16, 2024 4:07 PM PT

With files from Moira Wyton, Andrew Kurjata and the Canadian Press