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Hundreds of homeowners ordered out as fires sweep through B.C.'s northeast

Last Updated Apr 19, 2016 at 8:40 pm PDT

FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. – Dozens of wildfires burning around the northeastern B.C. community of Fort St. John have forced residents from nearly 500 homes to evacuate or prepare to leave at a moment’s notice.

Peace River Regional District declared a state of local emergency Monday night, just hours after winds gusting to 80 kilometres per hour brought down power lines.

Unseasonably high temperatures of nearly 30 degrees aggravated the conditions, although fire information officer Amanda Reynolds of the Prince George Fire Centre said the cause of the fires had not been confirmed.

“This time of the year, most of our fires are human caused,” she said. “However, we have not had an origin and cause investigator and we do know that some fires have resulted from fallen power lines.”

The Peace River Regional District’s Facebook page said three structures were destroyed, while Reynolds said one home was lost.

Residents of the nearby communities of South Taylor Hill, Charlie Lake and Baldonnel were ordered out late Monday and early Tuesday, and several other neighbourhoods were placed on evacuation alert.

A reception centre was opened in Taylor, south of Fort St. John, where arrangements were being made to care for animals moved off evacuated farms.

Environment Canada forecasts also provided some optimism, showing winds would remain gusty but temperatures were expected to return to the mid-teens Tuesday, with rain due later in the week.

There have been 45 new wildfires in the Prince George Fire Centre, where Fort St. John is located, since Monday, marking an early start to fire season.

Spring blazes are not unusual, said Provincial Fire Information Officer Kevin Skrepnek.

“I think it’s important to remember that it’s not uncommon to have an early spring grass fire season in B.C., but certainly not to the level of activity that we’re seeing in the Peace Region and elsewhere right now,” he said.

There have been 131 wildfires across the province so far this year, meaning fire season has come about two or three weeks early, said Forestry Minister Steve Thomson.

An early season is always cause for concern, he said.

“It does give you that little churn in your stomach, I guess, in terms of ‘Here it comes and we’re getting started.'”

There are more than 1,400 crew members and support staff ready to battle the blazes, plus 1,600 contract workers who could be called in to help, Thomson said.

“We need to deal with the season as it comes to us,” he said. “The crews are trained. We have a very, very professional wildfire service in British Columbia, so we’re ready and we’ll deal with the season as it comes.”

Environment Canada is predicting warmer temperatures across B.C. this summer, but right now it is impossible to predict how much precipitation there will be, which will have a huge impact on wildfire activity.

“It’s important to point out that this is an early start, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate what the long-term outlook for the fire season will be,” Thomson said.

Last year, wildfires charred nearly 3,000 square kilometres of B.C. woodland, costing the province nearly $300 million.