British Columbia

All eyes on weather as fires burn west and north of Fort Nelson

Weather conditions are expected to play a crucial role as firefighters continue to battle a wildfire just west of Fort Nelson in B.C.'s northeast on Wednesday.

Parker Lake fire still close to town and Patry Creek fire has grown significantly, wildfire service says

A sign that says "Report wildfires. Call *5555 or 1 800 663 5555).
A wildfire danger rating sign in Fort St. John, B.C. on May 14, 2024. (CBC News)

UPDATE — May 15, 5 p.m PT: Favourable weather helps wildfire fight in Fort Nelson

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THE LATEST:

  • The growing Patry Creek wildfire to the north, last measured at 465 square kilometres, is now just 25 kilometres from Fort Nelson as of Wednesday morning. The Parker Lake fire remains 2.5 kilometres away.
  • Rain is forecast for the Fort Nelson area on Wednesday but it might fall to the south of the town, which is still being threatened by the Parker Lake wildfire.
  • Gusty winds are expected to pick up in the area in the late afternoon and evening.
  • A community meeting for Fort Nelson-area evacuees will take place in person and online at 3:30 p.m. MT.
  • The Northern Rockies Regional Municipality has asked people still in Fort Nelson to limit water use to ensure firefighters have enough supply.
  • Members of the Doig River First Nation remain out of their homes due to a wildfire burning less than 1.5 kilometres from their community, near Fort St. John.
  • Hotels in Fort St. John are near capacity, with evacuees encouraged to go elsewhere if possible.
  • Air quality statements and advisories due to wildfire smoke span northeast B.C. and northern Alberta.

Weather conditions are expected to play a crucial role on Wednesday as firefighters continue to battle a wildfire west of Fort Nelson in B.C.'s northeast — and keep an eye on an even bigger fire growing toward the community from the north.

Since Monday, crews battling flames from the Parker Lake wildfire west of the town have had more "favourable conditions" on their side and Wednesday brings a chance of rain, but the province's wildfire service says the region is far from safe.

The fire was burning over an area of approximately 84 square kilometres as of 9 p.m. MT on Tuesday, with part of its perimeter 2.5 kilometres from Fort Nelson, about 1,000 kilometres north of Vancouver and about 800 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

A hazy sky over a river.
Wildfire smoke over a river near Fort Nelson, B.C., on May 11, 2024, just before the community was evacuated. The Parker Lake wildfire remains 2.5 kilometres from Fort Nelson, officials say, while the larger Patry Creek fire is now 25 kilometres north. (Cheyenne Berreault)

Its rapid growth on Friday caused more than 4,700 people to leave the community and the nearby Fort Nelson First Nation just hours after it was sparked about nine kilometres west of town.

While the fire moved south and away from the community on Tuesday, things could change rapidly as unsettled weather is forecast for the region, the B.C. Wildfire Service (BCWS) warned.

Westerly winds up to 15 km/h are forecast for the region Wednesday afternoon and into the evening, which could cause the fire to grow.

There is also increasing concern about the Patry Creek fire, a holdover fire from 2023 that has grown significantly after reigniting earlier this year. 

In a video update posted 10 p.m Tuesday, BCWS fire behaviour specialist Ben Boghean said the fire had experienced an "aggressive rate of spread" through Monday into Tuesday, bringing it to 25 kilometres north of Fort Nelson.

WATCH | Fires from 2023 reigniting in B.C.'s northeast: 

Holdover fires part of wildfire threat in B.C.’s northeast

10 days ago
Duration 1:55
As wildfire threatens Fort Nelson, B.C., from the west, there are also much larger fires burning to the east of the town. They're known as holdover fires — ones that never completely went out last year. Chad Pawson has more on those fires.

The fire, which went dormant over the winter before re-emerging earlier this year, was measured at around 465 square kilometres as of Tuesday evening and had been upgraded to a wildfire of note, defined by the service as a fire that is "highly visible" or poses "a potential threat to public safety." 

Boghean said as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, the fire did not pose a risk to Fort Nelson but warned "that can rapidly change if the area receives strong northerly winds and continuous dry conditions."

"Although these conditions are favourable for the short term, the threat of extreme fire behaviour returning to the region will remain," he said.

Though it is not unusual for these "holdover" or "zombie" fires to smoulder again in the spring, the dry conditions in the northeast have made these returning fires particularly volatile, adding another layer of complexity to what is expected to be a difficult wildfire season ahead.

B.C. is experiencing a record-low snowpack and drought has plagued much of the province — especially northeastern B.C. — for months.

Environment Canada says a low pressure system will bring up to 20 millimetres of rain, and possibly thunderstorms, to the area near Fort Nelson on Wednesday — but warns that most of the precipitation may likely lie south of where the fires are.

In the meantime, crews have been dousing water on homes and buildings along the Old Alaska Highway and near McConaughey Creek Road, and are also looking at planned ignitions to reduce available fuel in the area, according to Kevin Dalgarno, structure branch director for the BCWS incident management team in the region.

He said the favourable conditions have meant wildfire fighters didn't need to work through the night on Tuesday, but they are trying to use the period of relative calm to prepare.

"[On Wednesday] the weather is going to be very supportive of our plan and with that we're gonna try to move ahead and get ready for the next weather event," said Dalgarno.

Concerns over water use

Due to the risk of wildfire, the emergency operations centre for the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality (NRRM), which includes Fort Nelson, has had to set up in a remote location south of the community.

In an update posted online, it says RCMP have established checkpoints along highways into the community in order to reduce traffic in the area. 

For residents who did not evacuate their homes in Fort Nelson, the municipality has issued a warning over water use. It's urging people to limit their use of sprinklers and hoses, saying running additional water sources takes "critical resources away from where it is needed most" on the front lines of the fire.

Side-by-side handout images, shown in infrared, taken by the European Space Agency's Sentinel-2 satellite show the Fort Nelson and Muskwa rivers appear narrower on May 5, 2024 right, with more of their banks exposed compared with images taken on May 9, 2023, left.
Side-by-side handout images, shown in infrared, taken by the European Space Agency's Sentinel-2 satellite show the Fort Nelson and Muskwa rivers appear narrower on May 5, 2024 right, with more of their banks exposed compared with images taken on May 9, 2023, left. (European Union Copernicus Program; Processed by the Canadian Space Agency)

"If access to water diminishes in the community, so too does the ability for firefighters to continue the work they are doing on our behalf," the notice says.

In an interview Wednesday morning, NRRM Mayor Rob Fraser told CBC's Daybreak North he was optimistic favourable weather conditions would allow crews to "corral this beast and kill it," referring to the fire.

But Fraser cautioned that conditions remained volatile, particularly with a second fire moving toward the community, which he described as "massive," with smoke visible from Fort Nelson.

Two people walk toward a school as smoke rises in the background.
Smoke from the Parker Creek wildfire rises over Fort Nelson Secondary School Friday, May 10, 2024, shortly before the community was ordered to evacuate. (Carlos Heffes)

He also said it was too early to do a full assessment of any structural damage, in response to reports that some buildings outside town had been affected.

Premier David Eby said Tuesday afternoon that no homes have been lost to the fire yet, but Fraser later said that firefighters have been so focused on fighting the fire that they have not yet been able to assess other buildings outside the community.

"It's just not safe for people to come back yet. The worst could still happen," Fraser said. "We're not out of the woods."

He said he would be traveling to Fort St. John later in the day for a 3:30 p.m. public meeting at the North Peace Arena, where he would be providing more updates and answering questions from evacuees. The meeting is also being streamed online at northernrockies.ca/councilcast.

Doig River fire still close to community

Meanwhile, the Doig River First Nation posted its own update on a wildfire that forced the evacuation of their community, around 40 kilometres northeast of Fort St. John, on Tuesday.

The update, posted to Facebook, says the fire is still within 1.5 kilometres of the community — home to around 335 people  — and was still at risk at rapidly growing due to volatile weather conditions.

"While we have made some progress on the south side of the fire, we are expecting the wind to change direction over the next few days which could push fire activity back towards the community," the update says.

Supports for evacuees

Members of Doig River First Nation in need of support have been directed to the emergency support centre in Fort St. John.

That's the same location that more than 4,700 evacuees from Fort Nelson were initially directed to on Friday, traveling about 380 kilometres southeast by road to get lodging and support.

City spokesperson Ryan Harvey said Wednesday that the community, home to about 21,500 people, is supporting an estimated 3,000 evacuees from surrounding communities.

That high number means hotels are nearly full  — and some evacuees have been asked to leave as hotels look to honour pre-made bookings.

WATCH | Some wildfire evacuees told to depart: 

Fort St. John close to limit for accepting evacuees

9 days ago
Duration 2:31
Thousands of evacuees from Fort Nelson remain out of their homes, scattered across northern B.C., as the Parker Lake wildfire continues to threaten the community. The city of Fort St. John has swelled with the evacuees. CBC’s Michelle Ghoussoub reports from there.

Those who are able have been encouraged to head to nearby Dawson Creek or Chetwynd, or travel farther to Prince George, about another 440 kilometres south by road.

The province has also established a 400-room camp in Sunset Prairie, 60 kilometres by road from Fort St. John, in dorm-style accommodation.

Smoke raises health risks for some

Meanwhile. Environment Canada has posted notices for parts of B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories warning about wildfire smoke.

Forecasters say the fine particles in smoke pose health risks and are more likely to affect seniors, pregnant women, people who smoke, infants and young children, as well as those with chronic illnesses.

"Those who are more likely to be impacted should reduce or reschedule strenuous activities outdoors or seek medical attention if experiencing symptoms," the notices say.

A helicopter in a field.
A helicopter prepares to lift off in support of wildfire suppression efforts near Fort St. John, B.C., on May 14, 2024. (CBC News)

With files from Michelle Ghoussoub, Akshay Kulkarni, Andrew Kurjata, Moira Wyton, The Canadian Press