Flames rise from a steep hillside just outside of Zeballos. The difficult terrain has posed a challenge for firefighters working near the remote village.

Vancouver Island community under evacuation alert due to wildfire

BC Wildfire Service says steep terrain near Zeballos poses challenge as “out of control” wildfire approaches homes

Zeballos declared a local state of emergency and the eastern part of the village was placed on an evacuation alert Thursday, as news emerged that a nearby wildfire was out of control and had grown by several hectares.

A statement issued by the village on Thursday urged residents and visitors “to be prepared to evacuate in less than 30 minutes if ordered to do so by emergency officials.”

The lightning-caused wildfire had moved closer to homes in Zeballos by early Thursday, and video from the scene showed smoke billowing up behind houses in the community. Area residents expressed concern that not enough resources were being deployed to fight the fire.

“I’d like to see a little more priority there,” said Cory Hanson, a councillor with Ehattesaht First Nation, a community of about 100-150 people located beside Zeballos, population 107. “Right now the priority is needed in the village.”

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A river separates the Ehattesaht reserve from the village of Zeballos, which is closer to the fire. But Hanson said he’s concerned the fire could soon spread, and that helicopters had so far dumped just “a few buckets of water once a day” on the fire. Structures near the fire had also been hosed down.

“We’re really hoping that it won’t actually end up jumping the river,” said Hanson. “As soon as it jumps the river, we’re kind of in trouble ourselves.”

Natasha Broznitsky, an information officer for the Coastal Wildfire Centre, said the fire was considered “out of control” on Thursday morning. It measured 10 hectares, compared to seven on Wednesday, with zero per cent containment. The BC Wildfire Service had two officers on-site, along with one helicopter, she said, adding that resources deployed could change during the day.

She said the terrain posed a major safety hazard for firefighters.

“One of the big challenges of this fire is that it’s burning in extremely steep terrain. There’s rolling debris,” she said.

Asked about the concerns of residents, she said that people should pay close attention to local governments, which are responsible for issuing evacuation orders or alerts. She said that life, property and infrastructure, were the priorities of the BC Wildfire Service.

Mike Atchison, the Zeballos emergency program coordinator, said on Wednesday morning that a fire on a steep hillside had grown significantly, crossing a bluff towards the village, but he urged calm.

“Lots of people are very excited and upset,” he said. “They figure it’s going to be a big raging fire.”

He asked for people to be “calm, cool and collected, and don’t get too excited.”

The wildfire caused trees and other debris to fall down the steep hillside, prompting the closure of a road leading into the village. And it was generating “a lot of heavy smoke” carried by a north wind across the village, said Atchison. The fire was on a rocky mountain face, and moving slowly for lack of ground fuel, he said.

Resources on the scene included a tanker provided by Lemare, a logging company. Zeballos has a couple of its own trucks and a fire hydrant system, said Atchison, and officials were prepared to pump water to the site if necessary.

He added that a chopper dropped eight buckets of water onto the wildfire on Tuesday, but he said it soon left to deal with another nearby fire.

Asked if he expected the Coastal Fire Centre to deploy more resources, he said: “We’re hoping. But they’ve got lots of other issues.”

READ MORE: More than 35 wildfires burning on North Island on Tuesday

In a media release on Tuesday, the Village of Zeballos said that regional neighbours had offered assistance if needed. The statement said that controlling the fire required “a trained crew to follow and extinguish the fire from the ground.”

The release continued: “Bucketing the fire with water or retardant without ground crews to fight the fire behind it would not put the fire out and could potentially exacerbate the situation by rolling the fire down the hill.”

It stated that the BC Wildfire Service would supply firefighting materials, but that its priority was to “keep the road open and the lights on.”

Several First Nations belonging to the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC) were planning to hold their summer games this weekend in Zeballos, but the events were cancelled due to the wildfire, said Andy Callicum, vice-president of the NTC.

Meanwhile, another wildfire was out of control at Pinder Creek near the Zeballos Mainline, which is the only road to the remote coastal village and neighbouring reserve.

That fire was estimated at 80 hectares on Thursday morning, compared to 45 hectares on Wednesday, according to the Coastal Fire Centre.

The fire was 10 per cent contained, and 15 firefighters were on-site with one officer and a helicopter.

READ MORE: B.C. declares state of emergency as wildfires rage

Elsewhere in the region, another wildfire flared up at Espinose Creek, two kilometres from the Nuchatlaht First Nation’s Oclucje reserve. That lightning-caused fire measured 15 hectares by Wednesday morning, and was considered an “out of control” smoldering ground fire.

The Coastal Fire Centre couldn’t immediately provide an update on that fire on Thursday morning.

On Wednesday morning, the Coastal Fire Centre said the fire posed no danger to the reserve, adding that it was separated from the wildfire by a creek and a road.

Health issues and smoky conditions at Oclucje prompted Nuchatlaht First Nation to close its band office until further notice or until the fires are out, according to the community’s Facebook group. The First Nation has 162 members, including about 20 living on the reserve, according to its website.

New wildfires dotted the North Island on Wednesday morning, likely the delayed effect of lightning storms last Saturday.

A wildfire at Holberg Road, near Port Hardy, measured less than half a hectare but was “out of control” on Wednesday. Another new fire, this one at Kaipip Lake, in the central Island, was considered “out of control” and measured 2.1 hectares on Wednesday.

Two new wildfires appeared on the province’s online wildfire map on Thursday, both of them a fraction of a hectare.

Very little information was immediately available about some of the new wildfires as authorities struggled to keep up with the rapid developments. The number of wildfires burning on the North Island by Wednesday had reached 44, compared to 38 on Tuesday morning.

The Coastal Wildfire Centre said on Wednesday that weather forecasts were calling for no precipitation in the near future, and called on the general public to respect the open fire ban.

The BC Wildfire Service has also asked the public to report any fires, smoke columns or violations of wildfire regulations.

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Smoke rises from a wildfire burning just outside of Zeballos. The east side of the town is now under evacuation alert.

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