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Relief for few from western Canada fires

by Staff Writers
Kelowna, Canada (AFP) Aug 8, 2009
The battle against a wildfire near this western Canadian city was hampered Saturday by strong winds and thick smoke, keeping thousands of evacuees stranded into a second week.

But elsewhere in British Columbia, despite the 793 fires still burning across the province, the center of Canada's wine industry, some people who earlier fled their homes were able to return, provincial fire department spokeswoman Alyson Couch told AFP.

Officials allowed more than 2,000 people back to homes in Lillooet after firefighters largely tamed a blaze threatening the historic gold-rush town, 213 kilometers (132 miles) northeast of Vancouver, officials said.

No injuries or deaths have been reported across the region, and just three homes have burned down, said Couch.

A haze of thick smoke continued to hover over the wine-making and tourist area around Kelowna in the Okanagan Valley, 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of Vancouver.

Emergency officials here however had no assurances for 2,150 people who fled August 1, as a massive blaze on Terrace Mountain towered above area homes.

The blaze had grown to 8,550 hectares (33 square miles) by Saturday, and another 2,500 people remained on evacuation alert, ready to leave within minutes in case the winds change.

The fire threat is "under constant review... it changes in 10 minutes," said emergency spokesman Bruce Smith from the emergency center.

Local weekend temperatures were slightly higher than normal, reaching 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit).

The Terrace Mountain fire, which the forestry service said was "human-caused" and under investigation, was just 40 percent contained Saturday.

"This area is difficult to access and can be quite dangerous for crews as there is no road access, only helicopter. Last night there were strong winds and large amounts of smoke in the air," said the Saturday bulletin from the forestry service.

In the past month, Okanagan-area forest fires have forced as many as 17,000 people to flee, with thousands more on continual evacuation alert.

Officials are hoping for cooler temperatures with scattered showers province-wide in the next week, but they are prepared for the hot weather to continue, said Couch.

By Saturday, 1,400 forest firefighters and support workers from elsewhere in Canada had arrived to help British Columbia. Another 30 senior fire management officials arrived August 6 from New Zealand and Australia.

There has been no decision yet to call in the military, which helped during Canada's previous worst fire season in 2003.

Despite the smokey air, throngs of tourists here seemed unaffected -- swimming, biking, floating on pleasure boats on Okanagan Lake and taking wine-tasting excursions.

And it is still too early in the grape-growing season for the fire to affect the current year's wine, according to Lisa Cameron of the provincial wine institute.

Local grapes are currently impervious to the smoke, at a stage "like little marbles with rock hard skin," she said, though if the fires continue through the fall harvest season when the fruit ripens, "that would be a concern."

About 95 percent of British Columbia's growing wine industry is in the Okanagan Valley, with annual provincial wine sales of 163 million Canadian dollars (151 million US dollars), and wine tourism injecting another 80 million Canadian dollars (74 million US dollars) into the economy, said Cameron.

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Canada hopes for break in forest fires
Vancouver, Canada (AFP) Aug 5, 2009
With thousands of evacuees still stranded, emergency officials were hoping Wednesday for cooler temperatures to help firefighters tame wildfires raging through Canada's westernmost province. The fires were set off during a recent heat wave, but weather forecasters called for normal temperatures of between 25 and 30 degrees Centigrade (77 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit) in the hard-hit west and in ... read more

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