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Lillooet evacuees return home

Stubborn Mount McLean fire still only half-contained

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Over 2,000 people have returned to their homes after an evacuation order for the District of Lillooet was lifted Aug. 7.

Lillooet bore witness to one of the biggest wildfires seen in British Columbia this summer. A bolt of lightning made a nearly 4,000-hectare inferno out of Mount McLean just one kilometre from the Interior town, a fire that took on the air of a volcano at times, according to witnesses.

Eighty-one firefighters and 10 helicopters continue to battle the blaze, which now sits at an estimated 3,800 hectares, although B.C.'s Wildfire Management Branch said it's 50 per cent contained.

Crews worked to contain the fire through burnoffs starting Aug. 3, a tactic that involves literally starting fires on forest fuels between fireguards and the wildfire itself.

While the fire was warded off one kilometre from town, it stopped just 300 feet short of the T'it'q'et First Nation reserve, which is located at the base of Mount McLean.

Community Chief Bill Machell has spent his entirely life at the T'it'q'et reserve. Now 70 years old, he's seen fires flare up above his community on four occasions. Twice he's seen fires claim the reserve, in 1948 and 1971, but this time out there was no damage to a single structure.

"We thought that we were relatively safe but that quickly changed because of the terrain," he said. "It was very, very aggressive, it was continually moving because the wind changed and greater impact because of wind change.

"It was stubborn, they looked like they had it under control and then they'd lose it again."

While the reserve's structures may be safe, it remains under a boil water advisory, with some of the nearby water so contaminated that the First Nation's members can't even cook with it.

Machell said the Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs has stepped in to help the community get access to bottled water and the First Nation has also solicited donations from private companies. Well water could see clean up very soon but Town Creek, another big source of water for the community, remains deeply contaminated.

"I think the forecast is right now we're looking at a 10-day window," he said. "Hopefully things will clear up by then, but that's for well water. Town Creek we'd be looking at long term, possibly a six-year negative impact."

Machell added it would take "time and nature" to clean up the creek, and particularly that rainfall would have a big impact on how quickly it gets cleaned up.

The response by fire crews has come a long way from what he's seen before.

"In the early days they fought fire by axe and shovel," he said. "That's a big change, these controlled burns, this is the first one I've witnessed.

"They actually got the upper hand from a very serious condition. ...Wind conditions were usually at night and the updraft, they were done then, sometimes at 2 in the morning, then by morning you're looking at smoke as opposed to a forest fire."

Wendy Fraser, a former publisher at the Bridge River-Lillooet News , had to be evacuated from her home in Lillooet Heights. A lifelong Lillooet resident who runs a consulting business out of her home, she said this is the first time she's had to be evacuated. She saw two big fires approach town in 1971 and 2004.

"I think everything was handled very well," she said. "People were supportive of each other, there wasn't any panic. I think the community came through really well, all things considered."

Fraser found out about the evacuation order through a neighbour who's involved in emergency services. One day he knocked on her door and just said "go!" She then packed up her VW Golf stationwagon with luggage, family photos and her two cats and stayed at a friend's house just eight miles south of town.

Today she said there's a little bit of smoke billowing up from the Town Creek area but overall the mountain looks great.

"It's 110 per cent better than what it looked like 10 days or so ago," she said.

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