The B.C. Wildfire Service says crews are making good progress on a ground fire that’s so far charred one square kilometre of bush and trees in the Upper Squamish Valley.
Marg Drysdale, an information officer with the Coastal Fire Centre, says calm weather kept the fire’s activity low on Thursday, as 37 firefighters and three helicopters worked to get it under control.
As of Thursday evening, the fire was being held at the snowline on a ridge separating Squamish Valley from Paradise Valley, according to an update from the District of Squamish. A local state of emergency remains in effect.
Earlier in the day, Squamish Mayor Karen Elliot said about 30 people had been evacuated from the Paradise Valley area in what has become a strange confluence of crises.
“We had hotel rooms set aside in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, so that has made it easier to evacuate these families into Squamish,” said Elliot.
“[The wildfire] heightens an already anxious time,” she said.
The Magee Road fire, as it is now being called, is burning in an area west of the Sea to Sky Highway between Squamish and Whistler.
One of the evacuees said at least four houses have burned down.
Toni Kerekes also said about 100 locals tried fight the fire using shovels and rakes shortly after it started on Wednesday, before emergency crews and a helicopter arrived at the scene.
“There’s about 70 families that live up there and as many people as could ran to the fire. But it’s amazing how fast it goes,” she said.
“You look up and you realize the trees over your head are on fire… and the fire is running up inside the trunks.”
Kerekes had to remove five horses from her property where she teaches riding. She estimates the wildfire was burning about seven kilometres away, but is worried a shift in wind will start pushing the flames toward her place.
“Driving back last night to get the horses, it was like a staircase of flames going up the hill,” she said.
“It is scary, really scary.”
Multiple evacuation orders remain in effect and the District of Squamish has mobilized its emergency operations centre to help co-ordinate the response.
With no cellular service in the area, Squamish RCMP have been providing updates to residents affected by the wildfire via Twitter.
An update Thursday morning said the fire was cresting a ridge in Paradise Valley and that officers were going door to door to make people aware that the evacuation alert could turn into an evacuation order.
RCMP said hydro lines in the area are down.
Sgt. Sascha Banks described the area as an “acreage type community” with ranches, farms and fish hatcheries.
She said crews are working to get cell repeaters into the area to improve communication capabilities.
“It’s quite a dynamic situation,” she said. “We’re looking at a large number of properties to keep an eye on.”
Squamish, like much of the south coast, has been unusually dry and warm in April. On Wednesday it registered as the hottest place in Canada reaching almost 23 C. The normal daytime high at this time of year is 11 C.
This is a developing news event. Earlier story below:
Late Wednesday, fire crews helped RCMP evacuate a campground and six homes near the fire, which began as a slash fire around 4:15 p.m. PT but grew out of control near Squamish Valley Road at Magee Road, about 90 kilometres north of Vancouver.
Coastal Fire Centre spokesperson Donna MacPherson said wind worsened the situation Wednesday.
“Crews have been reporting that it’s an aggressive fire and it’s being fanned by 15 km/h winds,” she said.
WATCH | Aerial footage of the Squamish Valley wildfire:
The fire was just over half a square kilometre in size Wednesday night and had cut off access to the main road into Brackendale. Officers on Twitter warned that roadblocks have been put in place to prevent people from going up Squamish Valley Road.
RCMP have asked people to leave areas around Butterfly Lake, Levette Lake and Evans Lake because flames are spreading east in that direction.
Paradise Valley and the rest of Squamish Valley have been put on evacuation alert and some residents in the area are staying to help fight the fire. Residents of the Cheekye Reserve are also on evacuation notice.
The District of Squamish declared a local state of emergency late Wednesday due to the fire.
22 firefighters, 3 helicopters worked on blaze
RCMP Sgt. Sascha Banks said the Executive Suites Hotel & Resort in Squamish was taking on evacuees.
The COVID-19 pandemic complicates the situation, but the main priority is getting everyone out of the fire’s way safely, she said.
The B.C. Wildfire Service had 22 firefighters and three helicopters working on the blaze before dusk.
A crew of more than a dozen people were staying overnight, MacPherson said.
Yesterday evening’s timelapse shows the smoke blowing over the Stawamus Chief and Howe Sound due to the Squamish Valley wildfire. A local state of emergency has been declared, and crews are working to bring it under control. #BCWildfire #SquamishValleyFire #StayHomeStaySafe pic.twitter.com/y8U0JhsBJf
Cheekye Ranch owner Greg Hinds said he was prepared to help nearby homeowners move their animals out of harm’s way.
“If people need some room for their animals we can go get them, we got a couple of trailers ready to go retrieve them,” said Hinds.
MacPherson said the cause of the fire is under investigation and is suspected to be human-caused.
Provincewide burning bans in effect Thursday
The fire occurred a day before a provincewide prohibition on most open burning on public and private land comes into effect April 16 at noon.
The B.C. Wildfire Service has said the ban is “to reduce the likelihood of human-caused wildfires” and “reduce the impact of wildfire smoke on air quality and public health during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Fire officials explained the burn prohibitions are in line with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control’s recommendation to cut down on air pollution in the province.