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B.C. mayor warns against videos of properties destroyed by fire near Fort Nelson

Facebook videos posted show large structures reduced to grey ash and twisted metal
An extreme fire warning sign is shown along Highway 97 toward Fort Nelson outside the Charlie Lake Fire Hall near Fort St. John, B.C., on Monday, May 13, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jesse Boily

The mayor of a northeast British Columbia community threatened by wildfires is warning people who stayed behind in the evacuation zone to stay on their properties and not share images of fire destruction on social media.

Northern Rockies Regional Municipality Mayor Rob Fraser said it was “insensitive” and “unconscionable” that images of properties destroyed by the Parker Lake wildfire outside Fort Nelson had been shared before owners were told of the damage by authorities.

Fraser’s comments come after videos were posted on social media showing what appeared to be multiple homes destroyed outside Fort Nelson.

The Facebook videos posted this week show large structures reduced to grey ash and twisted metal, scorched vehicles, and tall trees blackened by the side of the road. One video posted Wednesday appears to show firefighters working to protect another home, with smoke shrouding the road.

Fraser said people who stayed behind after Fort Nelson’s 4,700 residents were ordered to evacuate on May 10 needed to register with authorities to make sure they are part of the co-ordinated firefighting effort.

“The law says those people if they’re not part of the effort (to fight fires), they need to be staying on their properties if they didn’t evacuate when there’s an evacuation order,” Fraser said in an interview on Friday.

“The RCMP don’t know these people, one from the next, unless it’s a fire vehicle, and so they end up stopping somebody in a private vehicle when they should be out there looking for looters and checking properties.”

One of the residents posting videos to social media is Duane Loe, who said he and about a dozen others stayed behind to protect their properties.

Loe said he was sorry about a video showing destroyed buildings and he didn’t “try to hurt people’s feelings.”

He said he would refrain from filming close-ups in the future but evacuees want to see what’s happening with their community and his videos provide that information.

Loe, who has not registered with the BC Wildfire Service or regional authorities, said he and others would continue heading out in the evacuation zone to fight fires, while staying out of the way of police and official firefighters.

“We’re not getting in anyone’s way. When I see a fire truck or emergency vehicle, I pull over. I don’t even allow them to slow down,” he said.

“We’re all working on the same goal to keep the town safe … We’re not little kids anymore. We’re not three or four years old. You can’t just tell us to go home. We’re adults and like I say, we have the experience and that’s what we’re here to do, it’s to help the town and the people.”

Fraser had previously said that fire damaged some structures on rural properties outside the town, and emergency staff were working to contact owners. But he wouldn’t say whether they included homes, or describe the extent of the damage.

He said confirmation of structural damage was only released after the social media videos began appearing, and he didn’t want people to find out about damage to their property without being properly informed.

Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma told a briefing on Friday that she was aware of structural damage in the early days of the wildfire last week, but there have been no further reports since May 11.

She said RCMP are on duty in Fort Nelson to protect against looting. Ma did not confirm any incidents of looting but said “the last thing anyone needs to know is that looting might be happening in those communities.”

Ma said the province’s worst fears about the fires in the northeast haven’t materialized but the region wasn’t “out of the woods” and the long weekend would be challenging for fire-affected communities.

Ma said she was not asking tourists to avoid B.C. but visiting the Fort Nelson area wasn’t recommended.

“We have a lot to offer and we want to show it,” she said. “All that we are asking is that if you are planning a trip to B.C. or the backcountry, just know before you go. Be aware of where you are going and the hazards of that area. Right now is not the time to visit the area around Fort Nelson.”

Ma said it was still too early to say when people evacuated from Fort Nelson and surrounding areas would be permitted to go home, saying it was “a very active and dynamic situation.”

Cliff Chapman, the BC Wildfire Service’s director of operations, said the evacuation order would remain in place.

The BC Wildfire Service said on its online dashboard Friday afternoon that 125 fires were burning in the province, with 13 extinguished in the previous 24 hours.

READ MORE: 125 wildfires burn in B.C., with majority in province’s northeast

Rainy weather in and around Fort Nelson had aided the fight against both the Parker Lake fire burning 2.5 kilometres west of the town and the Patry Creek holdover blaze 25 kilometres north of the community.

Evan Peck with the BC Wildfire Service said a low-pressure system brought much-needed rain on Wednesday and Thursday, along with cooler temperatures and lower humidity, making for “excellent” conditions for fire suppression efforts.

In a video posted by the service late Thursday, the fire behaviour specialist said there had been minimal growth of the Parker Lake fire, which forced the entire community to flee as strong winds fanned the advancing flames.

The fire was mapped at 123 square kilometres in size Friday, slightly lower than an earlier estimate of 127 square kilometres on Thursday.

Peck said the weather had also dampened the much larger Patry Creek fire, a holdover blaze from last year.

“Recent weather has reduced the fire behaviour to smouldering ground fire, preventing fire growth,” he said of the blaze that spans 718 square kilometres.

Peck warned, however, that while conditions should remain favourable over the next several days, it was not enough to break the long-term drought in northeastern B.C.

The BC Wildfire Service said the Patry Creek fire isn’t an immediate threat to the town, but conditions can change rapidly if there are strong northerly winds. Winds were expected to be northerly on Friday with an isolated risk of thunderstorms, the service said.

It said more than 100 wildfire service firefighters were responding to the Fort Nelson fires, as well as about 60 structure protection firefighters and 19 helicopters.

The service was in the process of setting up a fire camp at the Fort Nelson airport, as they dug in for the long haul to get the fires under control.

Fraser said the Patry Creek fire complicated the assessment of when residents could return once the threat from the Parker Lake fire diminished.

“While we are doing what we can do down here, we always seem to be looking over our right shoulder to see what that fire is doing and whether or not it’s blowing up,” he said in a Facebook video.

— By Chuck Chiang in Vancouver and Dirk Meissner in Victoria

The Canadian Press