CASTLEGAR, B.C. — Evacuation orders are being lifted and highways reopened as the recovery phase begins following the most destructive wildfire season in British Columbia's recorded history.
But B.C.'s agriculture minister warned that the fire season is not yet over, despite the progress being made on existing blazes and rain forecast to arrive later this week in the parched southeastern region.
"Recovery, of course, is not going to be quick and it's not going to be easy," Lana Popham said during a conference call on Monday.
More than 12,000 wildfires have consumed nearly 11,700 square kilometres of land across the province since April 1, forcing just shy of 50,000 people out of their homes at the peak of the disaster.
The previous record for land destroyed by B.C. wildfires was set in 1958, when 8,950 square kilometres was incinerated.
Thirteen evacuation orders remain in place, affecting about 4,200 residents, and another 10,400 people are still on standby to leave.
"In many cases, recovery can be as difficult, or more difficult, than response," said Chris Duffy of Emergency Management BC.
Regional emergency centres continue to operate across the province, but the provincial emergency program is looking at winding down some of those services as conditions continue to improve, Duffy added
A spokesman for the Transportation Ministry said the last highway to be closed due to fires was reopened Monday afternoon and there were no remaining smoke advisories.
RCMP spokeswoman Dawn Roberts said police officers would begin to transition back to their core policing duties as their help with checkpoints, roaming patrols and evacuation assistance is no longer needed.
"This has been by far one of the largest and longest emergency support operations we have been part of for a very long time," Roberts said.
More than 4,400 officers and civilian employees have been deployed on a rotational basis to the various fire zones across the province, she said. An additional 600 officers were deployed at the peak of the season.
Kevin Skrepnek of the BC Wildfire Service warned that the fire situation, especially in the southeast, remains "very, very volatile," despite the welcome news that cooler, wetter weather is expected to arrive in the region starting Wednesday.
"The last thing we want people to be doing is getting complacent," Skrepnek said.
"We have had such a sustained hot and dry period that it is going to take a lot of rain to really undo just how dry a lot of the deeper layers of the forest floor got."
He predicted the wildfire season will continue for several more weeks, if not longer.