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Evacuations, air quality advisories continue in B.C. amid wildfires

July 11, 2015 - 1:16 PM

VANCOUVER - Smoke from wildfires in British Columbia has forced some people to visit hospitals because of breathing problems and chest pain, says the provincial health officer.

Dr. Perry Kendall said emergency rooms in Whistler and Burnaby have seen a slight uptick in patients dealing with respiratory conditions during an early fire season.

He said about 12 people have visited the emergency room in the resort town of Whistler, and another 25 to 30 people have visited hospitals in the Fraser Health region, which extends from Burnaby to Hope.

Thick smoke has been drifting south to Whistler from a 200-square-kilometre blaze near Pemberton. It's among about 200 wildfires currently burning throughout B.C.

Kendall said the number of people ending up in hospital was low considering the amount of smoke permeating the province.

"I think the numbers are relatively low because I think people are taking advice and are not exposing themselves to the fine particle pollutants in the air," he said Thursday.

Air quality advisories have been issued for several communities, including Whistler, Metro Vancouver and parts of Vancouver Island.

Officials have advised people, especially the elderly and those suffering from chronic conditions, to avoid strenuous activity outdoors.

But adventure seekers are still enjoying Whistler, said David Macfarlane, director of operations at Whistler Blackcomb.

"Our (mountain bike) riders who are here to ride the bike park continue to ride," he said. "The numbers were down a bit just because it was tough conditions. But they're still out there riding today and right now."

Macfarlane said staff were advising visitors about the high-risk air quality advisory and decided to hold part of a kids' mountain biking camp indoors.

The B.C. government imposed a provincewide campfire ban Wednesday, and Macfarlane said visitors were advised not to barbecue outside or smoke on the mountain.

"We're just dealing with smoke right now. We'd hate to have a fire in our area on top of this," Macfarlane said.

Wildfires have forced residents from their homes in other parts of B.C., including the Cariboo region where a blaze more than doubled in size Wednesday.

The fire in the Puntzi Lake area, about 180 kilometres west of Williams Lake, had grown to about 12 square kilometres, fire information officer Emily Epp said Thursday.

Thirty properties have been evacuated, and other residents are on alert to leave their homes at any moment.

Chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek said there have been 945 fires throughout B.C. since April 1, burning more than 2,300 square kilometres of land.

Over 600 contractors have joined provincial fire crews to battle the blazes.

Their numbers have been bolstered with help from a firefighting crew of about 100 from Ontario, along with two water-skimming aircraft, which can also drop fire retardant. Crews from Australia were set to join the effort next week.

Forests Minister Steve Thomson said the province has signed a one-month contract to use the Martin Mars air tanker at a cost of $600,000 a month, plus hourly flying costs.

The aged water bomber has not been used to fight forest fires in B.C. for the past two years, but Thomson said the aircraft is an important tool during the unpredictable fire season.

A Port Alberni-based company that owns the tanker said it can drop 27,000 litres of water at once.

News from © Canadian Press, 2015
Canadian Press

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