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Port Alberni wildfire rages on with no timeline to reopen crucial highway

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British Columbia wildfire officials say firefighters are making some progress battling an out-of-control wildfire that has closed Highway 4, the only highway connecting western Vancouver Island with the rest of the province.

The Cameron Bluffs wildfire, located east of Port Alberni, grew to nearly one and a half square kilometres Wednesday afternoon.

The fire held its size overnight despite the B.C. Wildfire Service assigning 60 firefighters, five helicopters and several air tankers to tackle the blaze. By Thursday evening, the fire covered 1.8 square kilometres.

Crews are making "reasonable progress considering the burning conditions, leaning substantially on the aviation resources," Kimberly Kelly, a fire information officer with the B.C. Wildfire Service, said during a media update Thursday.

She said firefighters have been taking advantage of the long daylight hours, noting the wildfire agency is "continuously reviewing" the resources it has dedicated to the blaze.

HIGHWAY DETOUR

Highway 4 remains closed to traffic due to damage from fire debris and concerns about slope stability in the rugged terrain next to Cameron Lake.

A four-hour detour route has been established for essential travel along backcountry logging roads between Port Alberni and Youbou, in the Cowichan Valley.

Tanker trucks have been spraying water along the detour route to reduce dust amid persistent hot and dry conditions, the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure said.

The ministry is bringing in slope stability experts to assess the scene before making any decision on reopening the highway, according to the B.C. Wildfire Service.

The detour route is shown. (Province of B.C.)

MAYOR URGES CALM

The mayor of Port Alberni says she does not expect the highway to reopen for several days at least, and she is asking the province to open more forestry roads to truck in much-needed supplies to the communities west of the wildfire.

"It's not a great road," Mayor Sharie Minions said of the detour route Thursday. "It's working in a minimal way" as evidenced by "the number of accidents we had there yesterday."

The mayor is urging residents and visitors in the region to remain calm and avoid hoarding supplies like fuel and food.

Multiple gas stations in Port Alberni were closed Thursday while others saw long lineups at the fuel pumps.

"The road is expected to be closed beyond the life of the fire, and forest fires like this do not go out within a few days," Minions said.

"I think it's natural in those situations for people to panic a bit and we're certainly seeing that in our community with people filling up jerry cans of gas, buying more than they normally would at the grocery store, and just putting unfortunately unnecessary additional pressure on our resources."

Multiple gas stations in Port Alberni were closed Thursday while others saw long lineups at the fuel pumps.

The mayor said she is in discussions with the province about potentially opening logging roads around Horne Lake, northeast of the city, to commercial trucking. In the meantime, city officials have also contacted a shipping company about barging supplies into the port community, if necessary, she said.

"I am not expecting that the [highway] will be open this week," the mayor said. "We need to be planning for a worst-case scenario."

The Cameron Bluffs wildfire was first reported early Sunday morning and is believed to be human-caused. The blaze measured just 20 hectares Monday before surging to 109 hectares Tuesday, 140 hectares Wednesday and 180 hectares Thursday.

Bowinn Ma, B.C.'s Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, joined the Port Alberni mayor in asking residents to remain calm and avoid stockpiling essentials.

"I know that this is a concerning time for people who are impacted by the Highway 4 closure due to the Cameron Bluffs wildfire," Ma told reporters Thursday.

"Please know that this closure is temporary. A detour is in place but it should also only be used for emergencies. We continue to ensure that people have the essentials that they need. Trucks are making it through the detour route. There is no need to stock up on essential supplies. We're asking people to stay calm and purchase only what you need so that everyone in your communities can access the supplies that they require."

UNPRECEDENTED WILDFIRE SEASON

The fire is one of 33 B.C. wildfires considered out of control, with a total of 82 wildfires burning in the province Thursday.

B.C.'s emergency management minister says wildfires have burned more than 520,000 hectares in the province since April 1.

"Already the number of hectares burned this season exceeds the total number of hectares burned in 16 of the last 20 wildfire seasons," Ma said.

"As we move further into the wildfire season, I encourage and urge people to stay informed and to be prepared. While our government is making sure supports and resources are in place for the upcoming wildfire season, it's equally important that people start putting together a plan."

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