WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. _ The number of evacuees in British Columbia is expected to climb above the current total of about 17,400, as forecast lightning and strong winds could worsen raging wildfires.
BC Wildfire Service says weather conditions expected to include wind gusts of up to 70 km/h this weekend could cause a substantial increase in wildfire activity and residents in the Cariboo region and southern Interior should be prepared for evacuations.
The Cariboo Region District alone is home to approximately 60,000 people.
``Given these winds, we are expecting the very real possibility of extreme and violently aggressive fire behaviour out there,'' Kevin Skrepnek, B.C.'s chief fire information officer, said Saturday.
Skrepnek said crews have been ``using fire to fight fire'' and conducted controlled burns in the paths of fires near Williams Lake, 100 Mile House and 150 Mile House to prevent them from spreading.
``It looks like that has worked in most of these incidents in creating a fuel-free area,'' he said, adding that high wind speeds could still move embers beyond the controlled areas, spreading the fires.
There are more than 160 fires burning, with 14 posing a direct threat on communities, Skrepnek said. Fire suppression this season has cost the province $77 million and the bill for supporting evacuees has yet to be tallied.
Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb said crews were ensuring routes are clear and buses are ready if the rest of the city's 11,000 residents are suddenly forced to leave. Approximately half of the residents of Williams Lake have already left.
An evacuation order was issued Saturday morning for the remote Clisbako area in the Cariboo region. Officials have not said how many people are affected.
It follows an order issued Friday evening for an estimated 338 structures and residences in the Loon Lake area of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, which was the first new evacuation to be called since Wednesday.
Skrepnek said he's not aware of any homes or structures in the community having been destroyed, but assessments will be made once it's safe enough for officials to enter the area.
The province is reminding evacuees to register with the Canadian Red Cross and, if they need lodging or food, to register at emergency social services reception centres as well.
Officials said more than 80 per cent of the 6,150 households registered with the Red Cross will have received funds from the province by the end of Saturday.
Areas under evacuation alert have also expanded to include more homes in the Big Creek area, Tatla Lake residents and the Village of Clinton.
Village officials warned that residents should prepare for an evacuation order, noting that the fire was headed their way and ``poses an imminent threat to people and property.''
Environment Canada said it expects widespread winds from 20 to 50 km/h to begin Saturday afternoon, with local wind gusts picking up Sunday morning in some valleys and canyons.
``Unfortunately, significant rain continues to elude the southern half of the province for the foreseeable future,'' Environment Canada said.
The BC Wildfire Service said it's taken steps to help ground crews fight some of the fires, by burning a safe perimeter around a 2,600-hectare blaze near 150 Mile House.
The service is asking people to stay away from the backcountry to avoid triggering human-caused fires.
Officials are also asking the public to stay off four lakes in the Cariboo region, specifically Williams Lake, Watson Lake, Lac La Hache and Horse Lake, so that firefighting aircraft have room to pick up water.
Even coastal communities aren't immune to fire-prevention measures as fire danger ratings of ``high'' to ``extreme'' cover larger swaths of the region.
As of Saturday, the fire chiefs for the District of North Vancouver, City of North Vancouver and District of West Vancouver banned the use of barbecues at all parks and beaches.