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Wildfires expand in Western Canada

KELOWNA, British Columbia -- Fueled by dry winds, a swift-moving forest fire swept over orchards and vineyards and into the outskirts of this western Canadian city yesterday, destroying more than a dozen houses and forcing 10,000 people to flee their homes with less than two hours' notice.

The forecast spelled no relief for crews battling the area's worst fires in 50 years: more hot winds of up to 30 miles per hour and possible evening lightning.

"We've all seen the terrible force of Mother Nature in the past few weeks," British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell said before departing for an aerial tour of the burned areas.

More than 100 firefighters armed with 11 helicopters and 50 bulldozers were tackling the blaze, just one of a half-dozen major fires threatening southern British Columbia communities. Officials say the erratic blazes continue to confound specialists. Winds generated by the flames are carrying embers long distances, thwarting attempts to build fire guards.

A sudden shift in the wind overnight swept the Okanagan Mountain forest fire over a guard and into Kelowna, about 170 miles east of Vancouver, destroying about 15 homes on the city's east side. The fire grew overnight from 32,100 acres to almost 42,000 acres.

"As far as fires in and around communities, this is the worst we've ever seen," said fire information officer Kevin Matuga. "When the fires take significant runs in the afternoons, there's little we can do to stop them."

Mayor Walter Gray of Kelowna said the evacuation of 10 percent of the community was orderly, despite the short notice to residents. Ash continues to fall through the smoky air, he said.

"Air quality is very poor. We are telling local residents who do have respiratory problems to stay indoors," Gray said.

As many as 10,000 people were in emergency centers early yesterday, and another 3,000 to 4,000 people remained on evacuation alert, Emergency Services spokeswoman Carol Suhan said.

Evacuee Tony Kooenen fled his house before the flames Thursday night. "I worked all my life for my home," Kooenen said. "It looked severe when we left."

Yolanda Overton, also evacuated, wondered if she would have a home to return to. "It brought you close to tears," she told reporters. "We were overwhelmed. We were scared."

Two hundred residents in an area 100 miles north of the city who were evacuated due to fires earlier this month were again ordered out of their homes Thursday. More than 17,500 people have been affected by evacuation orders throughout British Columbia.

The cost of fighting the almost 900 fires that have plagued the province this year has been $106 million, almost triple the $36 million budget.

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