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Weather Helps Contain Canada Forest Fires

August 25, 2003

KELOWNA, British Columbia (AP) _ Cooler temperatures and milder winds on Sunday helped firefighters contain a blaze that has destroyed nearly 250 homes and forced thousands to be evacuated in this western Canadian city.

Emergency officials said they allowed 2,000 evacuees to return to their homes on Sunday. They said 24,000 people had been evacuated from the area.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien toured the fire-ravaged Kelowna area Sunday, viewing the devastation from the air and comforting evacuees on the ground.

``I wanted to come and offer my support, my moral support and the support of my government in order to help the citizens of Kelowna and the Interior of British Columbia,″ Chretien said.

Some 17,000 others were on evacuation alert, including the people allowed to return to their homes, Kelowna fire department spokeswoman Carol Suhan said.

``It was so frightening for two nights when the winds were coming through and you didn’t know where it was going next,″ said Marnie Perrier, an evacuee.

Firefighters saved her house by hosing it down, Perrier said.

Temperatures that dropped to 39 overnight and winds that were down to 9 mph from a high of 45 mph were helping firefighters to keep the flames from spreading.

Winds were forecast to remain mild until Tuesday, and rain was expected Sunday night.

Less than one-third of Kelowna’s 100,000 residents fled the fire since Thursday as high winds swept it past orchards and vineyards and over fireguards built into hillsides.

``There’s still a great portion of our city that is at risk and at the whim of winds,″ said Ron Mattiussi, director of the Kelowna emergency operations center. ``This is still a very active dangerous area.″

Towering flames leveled 244 houses in the city’s south end Friday and Saturday.

Kevin Matuga, fire information officer with the British Columbia Forest Service, said there were no major losses Saturday and crews continued to extinguish hot spots around homes.

``This is far from over. Until we get a significant amount of rain, the potential for extreme fire behavior still exists,″ Matuga said.

Leo Gebert, the evacuated owner of Kelowna’s St. Hubertus Estate Winery, saw flames creeping between the buildings of his business and welcomed helicopters dumping retardant on the structures.

``As long as they keep doing that, there’s hope,″ Gebert said. ``We can’t do anything about it so we decided to get out.″

No deaths have been reported, but some firefighters have suffered minor injuries, officials said.

Most people had left evacuation centers set up in hockey rinks to lodge in hotels, move in with friends or relatives or hunker down in vehicles, Suhan said.

The cost of fighting the almost 900 fires that have plagued British Columbia this year now tops $106 million, or about $4 million per day.

Cher announced she would donate half the proceeds from her Saturday concert in Vancouver to the British Columbia Forest Fires Relief Fund. There was no word on the amount.

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