B.C. crews watch winds closely as biggest wildfire burns near Prince George

B.C. crews watch winds closely as biggest wildfire burns near Prince George

More than 150 firefighters and thousands of residents will be closely watching the weather in northern B.C. on Friday as the largest wildfire in the province has people in nearby cities and communities on edge.

The Shovel Lake fire prompted an "extreme fire behaviour warning" from the B.C. Wildfire Service on Thursday afternoon.

Officials said the 68,000-hectare (680 square-kilometre) fire — more than twice the size of Prince George and six times that of Vancouver — was in danger of being whipped up by strong winds.

Fire information officer Claire Allen said the fire held overnight, but gusts of up to 40 km/h are in the forecast for Friday.

"The winds are what we're watching out for today," she said Friday morning.

"Whenever we have something like that in the forecast, we have to be very, very careful — both in terms of fire behaviour as well as the safety of our firefighters out on the line."

Extreme fire behaviour is characterized by a "fast-spreading, high-intensity crown fire" that can be very difficult to control, according to Natural Resources Canada.

A crown fire is one that burns through the treetops and along the forest floor.

The sky over Prince George was still a dark, burnt orange hours after sunrise Friday morning, the sun darkened by a thick layer of smoke.

Thick smoke in the area has made it difficult for crews to fly over the fire and map a plan of attack.

Historic site threatened

The Shovel Lake fire is burning west of Prince George, between Burns Lake and Vanderhoof.

The Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako urged residents to comply with evacuation orders after the wildfire service's warning on Thursday.

Rob MacDougall, mayor of nearby Fort St. James, said the past few days have been "overwhelming on many fronts."

"We haven't experienced the threat of fire in the past and so close," he said.

Fort St. James National Historic Site is home to Canada's largest collection of fur trade-era wood buildings. Some are 130 years old.

Maintenance teams from Parks Canada have set up a sprinkler system on the roofs of the buildings, wetting the grounds to prevent any sparks from flaming up in the park.

Lyle Penner, who works with the park's maintenance team, has been going building to building, ensuring every structure has been sufficiently protected.

"Some of these buildings ... are a critical part of Canadian history," he said.

Evacuation alert for Kimberley

Late Thursday, the entire city of Kimberley and properties directly south and southwest of the city in the Regional District East Kootenay were placed on evacuation alert due to fires in that area.

Around 4,500 people live in the southeast B.C. city.

In a statement, Mayor Don McCormick said residents will be given as much advance notice as possible if they need to leave, but he cautioned there may be limited notice due to changing conditions.

An evacuation order was also issued by the district Thursday for residents of 65 properties in the St. Mary Lake area. Members of the RCMP are helping residents leave their homes.

With files from Yvette Brend,  and The Canadian Press