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White Rock Lake fire jumps Highway 97 just south of Monte Lake: wildfire service

VANCOUVER — The White Rock Lake fire burning between Kamloops and Vernon has jumped across Highway 97 just south of Monte Lake and continued growth is expected.

VANCOUVER — The White Rock Lake fire burning between Kamloops and Vernon has jumped across Highway 97 just south of Monte Lake and continued growth is expected.

Fire information officer Hannah Swift says the BC Wildfire Service doesn't have an update on the perimeter of the fire, last measured at 325-square kilometres, because crews are focused on suppressing the blaze and helping people get out of the area.

Swift says "many" property owners remained in areas that are under evacuation orders from the Thompson-Nicola and Columbia Shuswap regional districts and wildfire crews were working with the RCMP on Thursday night to evacuate them. 

She says helping residents who didn't heed orders puts emergency personnel at risk while strong southwesterly winds are drying out fuel and pushing the fire north.

Late Thursday night an evacuation order was issued for 303 properties in the Westwold-Monte Lake area, which were previously on alert due to the White Rock Lake blaze.

Swift says she didn't have details on how far exactly the fire has spread, but it was burning on both sides of Highway 97, which is closed for a 62-kilometre stretch. She adds that wind is pushing smoke northeast and there's low visibility in the area.

The smoke is "another reason why it's essential that we get anyone who's in an evacuation order out of the area and to safety as quickly as possible," she says.

Swift did not have an estimate of how many people stayed after being ordered to leave last night, including about 600 residents in the community of Falkland. 

The temperature is cooling off to the mid-20s, Swift says, but winds along with low relative humidity are fuelling "very active fire behaviour" and growth.

Priscilla Kazarian, an information officer with the emergency operations centre for the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, says she could not confirm whether there had been any structure damage as a result of the fire's growth on Thursday.

The Columbia Shuswap Regional District posted an update on Facebook Thursday evening, saying "the situation is extremely dangerous and increasingly volatile."

More than 100 new wildfires have broken out this week in British Columbia as lightning and hot weather helped push the number of active fires to nearly 300. 

Almost three dozen blazes have the potential to endanger people and property, including the White Rock Lake fire, which the wildfire service's director of fire centre operations had called particularly concerning at a briefing earlier on Thursday.

Rob Schweitzer said 125 structural protection personnel from 25 fire departments across the province were committed to protect homes in the area as more than 130 firefighters and 13 helicopters work to suppress the blaze.

There were more than 60 evacuation orders covering about 4,200 properties in the province's last update, while residents of about 21,000 others have been told to get ready to leave on short notice in case a fire threatens their land or escape routes.

The fire danger is rated high to extreme across B.C.'s southern Interior, Lower Mainland and Sunshine Coast as well as much of Vancouver Island.

The wildfire service has responded to 1,387 fires that have scorched 5,730-square kilometres so far this season, Schweitzer said. The 10-year average for this time of year is 797 fires and about 1,220-kilometres square burned, he noted.

Environment Canada is calling for showers over most of the province this weekend, possibly aiding firefighting efforts, but the reprieve will likely be short lived as hot, dry weather is expected to return next week. Air quality statements remain in place across southeastern B.C. due to wildfire smoke.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 5, 2021.

The Canadian Press