It was the news everyone was waiting to hear, sort of.
After days of speculation and rounds of meetings, officials from the City of Williams Lake, the Cariboo Regional District, the Williams Lake Indian Band and many more gathered at Kiwanis Park in Williams Lake Thursday to announce several evacuation orders would be rescinded and replaced with alerts including the city and several outlying areas.
Mayor Walt Cobb took to the podium first, announcing the city’s 13-day evacuation order had been changed from an order to an evacuation alert.
CRD Chair Al Richmond said evacuation orders were also changed to alerts for the rural communities of Sugarcane, 150 Mile House, Fox Mountain, Esler, Pine Valley, Springhouse, Dog Creek Road, Chimney Valley, Chimney and Felker Lakes, Big Lake and Miocene.
CRD areas still under threat of wildfire that will remain under an evacuation order include: areas north and south of Mountain House Road, including Wildwood, the Spokin Lake area, areas along Soda Creek Road and Frizzi Road, Soda Creek First Nation as well as areas in the Chilcotin.
Cobb had been pushing for residents to be able to return home in recent days but was cautioned by officials within the Ministry of Forests and the Cariboo Fire Centre, concerned about changing weather patterns and the continuing threat of nearby wildfires such as the Hanceville-Riske fire, the White Lake fire, the Wildwood fire and the Spokin Lake fire.
Cobb said that threat still exists, and residents, particularly young children, seniors and those with health risks, should seriously think about their decision before coming home.
“Before you decide to return, and I can’t emphasis this enough, you are encouraged to consider that wildfires continue in the area, air quality remains poor and the area will still remain under alert. You should still be prepared to leave with very short notice,” Cobb said.
CRD Chair Al Richmond also cautioned residents planning to return home.
“People need to consider, particularly those in the rural areas, that the area has been profoundly affected by wildfire. The services you used to rely on may be limited for some time. Bring some basic necessities with you to last you for up to seven days, including food and prescriptions.”
Residents allowed to return to City of Williams Lake and surrounding areas. Area still on alert. See map. https://t.co/fwdbKfsMLT— CRD (@CaribooRD) July 27, 2017
Richmond said residents should keep important belongings packed due to the ongoing risk and possible need to evacuate again. He said the CRD has been working with Red Cross, the RCMP, BCSPCA, BC Hydro and Telus to ensure residents are safe and supported upon their return.
Williams Lake Indian Band (WLIB) counsellor Willie Sellars acknowledged all the “heroes” working on the front lines fighting the fires and those community members who jumped into action “saving homes and saving lives when the fires ripped through the communities.”
He also acknowledged all of the food, services and resources provided to Williams Lake and area from across the country which likely led for a quicker return for residents than what could have been.
“Having the city open back up is going to relieve a lot of stress and getting people home and back to the nuisances of life such as driving through the city of Williams lake I think is going to be huge in creating that normally we take for granted on an everyday basis,” Sellars said, later also suggesting his members take their time to before returning to Sugarcane.
Krista Dunleavey and Mark Hamm of the BC Wildfire Service further cautioned returning evacuees, noting residents will remain under alert and must be ready to leave within a half hour’s notice.
“Before deciding to return, the BC Wildfire Service encourages residents to consider that there are still multiple, large uncontained fires in the area that will grow – given the right wind conditions, fire growth could be dramatic.”
A word with Manager of Community Safety Dave Dickson.Posted by Williams Lake Tribune on Thursday, July 27, 2017
Dangers from damaged trees, ash pits, livestock and wildlife on area roads and persistent smokey conditions are all things residents can except should they return home.
Cariboo Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett and Cariboo-Prince George MP Todd Doherty both gave emotional speeches about the unprecedented wildfires and evacuations in the region.
“There’s controversy about why we couldn’t come home earlier. Well I can tell you, you couldn’t come home earlier and you are now to listen to them, to listen when they say you are on alert, on alert 24/7. I was in the sky last night with your local politicians and there is so much burning out there yet and we know fire season doesn’t start in the Cariboo Chilcotin, and I’m not (trying to) scare you, until August. So please look after each other and welcome home,” Barnett said.
Doherty said the Cariboo Chilcotin area is not out of the woods yet in terms of risk and that residents will likely remain on “high alert” for the remainder of the summer. He also toured the area by air and roadways.
“My heart broke in seeing the devastation and knowing that it is going to be a while before we can piece people’s lives back together, but that’s what we do in the Cariboo and the Chilcotin, is we do community very well,” Doherty said, also acknowledging the many individuals who worked independently on the early days of the fires.
“There are stories of local contractors, local foresters, local First Nations, local ranchers that did whatever they needed to do, they disobeyed orders, we don’t condone that, but they saved property and likely saved lives, and for that I want to say thanks to everybody.”
Cobb was questioned as to how how he came to the decision to allow re-entry given the risks the fires still pose.
He responded by saying it wasn’t an easy decision and that he and officials looked at the fires from the air and later evaluated the risk and decided together to bring people home.
“We know there’s a risk, and we can’t not emphasis that, but we can’t keep people away forever.”
Following the announcement, the Resiliency Centre in Williams Lake opened from 2 p.m until 8 p.m. and will be opened for the next ten days from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for any needs of returning evacuees.
One of the biggest concerns for residents afar has been whether Red Cross will continue to fund evacuees choosing to stay away during the alert.
Angela Hill of the Canadian Red Cross said both evacuees and those choosing to return to the evacuation alert areas will receive an additional $600 in assistance this week.
She added that those already registered with Red Cross do not have to do so again in order to get the funds.
Here are some answers to questions regarding Red Cross assistance. For more information on the wildfires please go to www.wltribune.com.Posted by Williams Lake Tribune on Thursday, July 27, 2017
Anyone who has yet to receive assistance can register at the Resiliency Centre at Boitanio Mall where those concerns can be met.
Those still under an evacuation order are asked to wait until they can return home to visit the Red Cross at the Resiliency Centre, however, there are many other services available there should they wish to stop in.
For any inquiries relating to the Red Cross, evacuees can contact them at 1-800-863-6582.
City officials said essential services in Williams Lake are up and running, such as the hospital and some grocery stores. Many other businesses may not be up and running for a while, Cobb said.
Just a few hours after the city’s evacuation order was changed to an alert, several members of the Williams Lake Fire Department set up along Highway 97 north and south to welcome residents home as a light rain fell in the area.