CACHE CREEK, B.C. - Residents of a village in Interior British Columbia are thrilled to be heading home after being rushed out by a fast-moving wildfire, but they fear an uphill battle in repairing the community's tourism economy.
Lisa Balouch, manager of the Sunset Motel in Cache Creek, says the loss of 11 days of visitors is significant, not only to hotels, but to restaurants, gas stations and other businesses.
"We had people coming from Britain, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, all across Canada, the U.S.," she said in an interview from Venables Valley, a short drive from Cache Creek.
"So many people depended on those tourists coming through for money. Not only did they lose that money, but now they have to spend money doing cleanup."
More than 45,000 people remained out of their homes Tuesday as 155 wildfires burned in B.C. Cache Creek, with a population of about 1,000, was the first major community to be evacuated on July 7.
Officials said the 520-square-kilometre Elephant Hill fire, formerly called the Ashcroft Reserve fire, continued to burn out of control, but the imminent threat to Cache Creek had diminished. Residents were allowed to return at 3 p.m. Tuesday, but the village remained on evacuation alert.
Mayor John Ranta said the fire destroyed two airport hangars, one house and a few other buildings. Most of the Boston Flats trailer park south of the village was destroyed, he said.
Cache Creek businesses depend on summer tourism to generate enough revenue to stay open the rest of the year, he said.
"It is a huge impact on local area businesses when there's an evacuation," he said. "We're hopeful that we can invite the rest of British Columbia and beyond back into the community in very short order."
It had been a difficult year for Cache Creek before the fire. The village was hit with flooding in May and the fire chief, 59-year-old Clayton Cassidy, was swept away.
Ranta said the community has shown remarkable resilience.
"The people in Cache Creek, I think, are prepared to step up and work shoulder to shoulder with their neighbours," he said.
People returning home were advised to look out for damage to utilities and power lines.
"We would try to make sure that people are also aware of the emotional toll that evacuation has taken," said Robert Turner of Emergency Management B.C.
He urged residents to watch for "worrying signs" and take advantage of supports.
Financial assistance of $600 is available for each evacuated household. So far, about 12,700 households have registered with the Canadian Red Cross and, of those, 10,700 have received their assistance, Turner said.
The Red Cross will offer extra financial help and cleaning kits to families returning home, he added. It was hoped that both would be available Wednesday, but details were still being worked out.
Readying communities for reoccupation is no easy task, said Al Richmond, chairman of the Cariboo Regional District, which is preparing to allow the re-entry of residents of 100 Mile House and the surrounding area.
"I don't want you to believe that means you're coming home tomorrow or at the end of the week," he told a public meeting of evacuees gathered in Kamloops on Monday night.
"There are many things that have to be done."
In several communities, the power was off for days. The Red Cross has said the spoiled food is hazardous, so hundreds of refrigerators and freezers have to be thrown out and the district needs to find a place to put them.
"If you look at (108 Mile Ranch) alone, 1,160 homes, times how many freezers, times how many fridges. Those are some of the logistics of taking you home," Richmond said.
The district issued a statement that said a comprehensive assessment will be conducted to ensure the integrity of all infrastructure and utilities, including water, sewer, roads, hydro, natural gas and emergency telephone services.
Wildfires have burned more than 3,200 square kilometres of the province so far this year.
— By Laura Kane in Vancouver