Williams Lake mayor says city gearing up for possible homecoming

Click to play video: 'Williams Lake officials preparing for eventual return of residents'
Williams Lake officials preparing for eventual return of residents
Thousands of people have been evacuated out of Williams Lake and the surrounding areas as a windy Saturday blew a number of fires closer to the city – Jul 23, 2017

Williams Lake residents hope that they’re next in line to head home, after wildfire evacuation orders were lifted for Princeton and 100 Mile House on Saturday.

More than 24,000 people were were ordered out of the city and surrounding area last Saturday, after officials became concerned that encroaching fires could cut highway access to the community.

But amid signs of progress, the city’s mayor said they’re gearing up for a possible homecoming.

LISTEN: Jill Bennett discusses the possibility of a homecoming with Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb   

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Before residents can come home, officials need to be sure that Highway 97 north and south of the city is safe, and that the fires themselves no longer present a danger, Mayor Walt Cobb said

There has been progress, however.

While the Wildwood fire, which jumped the highway north of town, remains zero per cent contained, it hasn’t moved toward the city in several days, Cobb said.

He said the air quality has also improved drastically in recent days, with smoke blowing out of the valley.

Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb gives the thumbs up during a much-needed dose of rain on Thursday. City of Williams Lake

In response, officials have begun the slow process of bringing the city back to life.

Cobb said the ER at the Williams Lake hospital should be up and running by Monday, and that officials have allowed some people to return to prepare grocery stores, gas stations and a drug store for residents when they come home.

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“We’re in the final stages of being ready. As soon as we get the clearance on the fire itself, I think we will be able to bring people home,” Cobb said.

Canadian Forces troops have joined RCMP officers to maintain the evacuation order. RAdm Art McDonald / Canadian Forces

But Cobb said the decision will have to be made in conjunction with the Cariboo Regional District, which is responsible for the communities around Williams Lake.

“You’ve got to realize that in a small community like this many of our people that work in town, in the sawmills, in the grocery stores, don’t live necessarily within the city boundaries. They’re not going to be able to get any employees to open those businesses anyways,” he said.

Cobb added that even if the order is lifted, some people, like seniors in care homes or those without cars who were bused out of town, might not be able to return right away.

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“Who knows, we’re in this situation probably until September at least, or until we get a lot of rain. So we don’t want to bring those people back and then turn around and give another evacuation notice,” he said.

WATCH: Full coverage of B.C. wildfires

In the meantime, Cobb said being in Williams Lake is like walking around a ghost town.

“It was a little eerie at times to drive downtown and see no cars, no nothing but smoke. It’s like some of those horror movies, where the end of the world kind of thing, where there’s nobody, nothing, not a movement. About the only thing you could hear was a crow. They didn’t go away.”

But the city isn’t completely empty; Cobb and the crows have plenty of first responders for company.

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“In the Stampede Grounds we have all of the volunteer fire departments from many, many communities that have come to assist. So we’ve got quite a parking lot full of fire trucks,” Cobb said.

They’re joined by a complement of 300 Mounties who were dispatched to enforce highway restrictions and protect the city from looting and crime, and who have taken over nearly all of Williams Lake’s hotels.

Municipal fire departments from around the province have sent crews to help protect the city. City of Williams Lake

And in more recent days, the armed forces have joined the fight – transforming the city’s arena into a makeshift barracks.

Despite the progress, many residents of the area around Williams Lake will be returning to destruction.

Cobb said early estimates are that about 99 structures have been lost, with as many as 30 of them being people’s homes.

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And he said ranchers may have lost key outbuildings, hay stockpiles and even cattle.

“There’s horrendous losses,” Cobb said.

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