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Heavy rain helps douse wildfires in Canada's British Columbia

Thick smoke from wildfires burning in the area hangs in the air as motorists travel on the Trans-Canada Highway east of Kamloops, British Columbia, on Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

KELOWNA, British Columbia (AP) — Firefighters in a scenic region of British Columbia said Wednesday that heavy rain overnight helped douse wildfires that forced the evacuation of thousands of people from the Canadian province, as the cost of the devastating fires became clearer.

Officials in southern British Columbia said 174 properties were partially or totally damaged by the fires that raged for days in the Okanagan Valley threatening towns in the Kelowna area, a summer destination about 90 miles (150 kilometers) north of the U.S. border.

“I’m happy to report in the north we’ve received rain, and a lot of it,” said Chief Ross Kotscherofski of the North Westside fire rescue department. “This, with lower temperatures, is going to really help with mopping up this fire.”

Kotscherofski said 90 properties in his firefighting region were damaged or destroyed, although some, including the Lake Okanagan Resort, consist of multiple structures.

West Kelowna fire Chief Jason Brolund said a total of 84 properties were partially or totally damaged in West Kelowna and the Westbank First Nation.

“I’m feeling some optimism based on the weather,” Brolund said. “My priority now becomes returning people to their homes. I ask for your continued patience.”

More than 25,000 people in British Columbia have been under evacuation orders, with 37,000 more under alert to be ready to evacuate on short notice.

Bowinn Ma, British Columbia’s emergency management minister, said people who defy evacuation orders are putting at risk the “unified strategy” for battling the destructive blazes.

More than 500 firefighters are currently battling the blazes around Lake Okanagan.

Drenching rainfall is also in the forecast Wednesday for much of British Columbia's fire-ravaged interior, where up to 80 millimeters of rain was expected.

The forecast also includes warnings of potential localized flooding and “debris flows” as rains hit the scorched landscape.

Officials said a website will be launched Wednesday to let homeowners in West Kelowna, Westbank First Nation and the Central Okanagan Regional District if their properties have been damaged or destroyed.

“In a perfect world our preference, without question, would be to personally call every single homeowner and be with them when they receive what is probably the worst news they have ever received,” said Sally Ginter, Central Okanagan Regional District chief administrative officer.

“But today we live in a day of social media and photos and information that is flying around faster than we can ever begin to think we can manage,” she said.

To the north, in Northwest Territories, the mayor of Yellowknife said late Tuesday it’s not safe for residents to go home to the territorial capital, but she notes city officials are working on a return plan. A fire continued to burn about 15 kilometers (nine miles) away from the city. Most of the 20,000 residents left by air or road late last week.

Canada has seen a record number of wildfires this year that have caused choking smoke in parts of the U.S.