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Burgers run out, hotels heave, as wildfire evacuees swell a BC town

The Denny’s restaurant in Fort St. John, B.C., ran out of burgers on Tuesday, a waiter said.

Hotels have been filled with new guests, some turning up without identification or money, according to one manager. Fort St. John businesses have been doing their best to welcome the influx, offering free movie nights — popcorn included — and discount burritos.

The community in northeastern B.C. is heaving with evacuees from Fort Nelson, a further 380 kilometres north, since residents were ordered to get out Friday in the face of a fast−growing wildfire.

Rob Fraser, the mayor of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality, which includes Fort Nelson, pleaded for patience from evacuees as they settled in.

In a video posted to Facebook this week, he said Fort St. John had to absorb the "shock" of about 3,500 people dropping "into a community of 25,000."

Evacuees packed the parking lot of the North Peace Arena Wednesday after a meeting to explain their situation, many leaving with maps in their hands showing the fires’ locations, spreading out to hotels that have had to absorb thousands of unexpected guests.

Fraser said the fires burning near their community leave the future in the short−term "up in the air," and there is no solid timeline for when residents can return.

<who> Photo credit: Canadian Press

"We don’t want to be in that situation where we turn people back to the community and three days later we just send them out again," he said. "That would be just a nightmare."

For Fort St. John businesses, the impact of the influx was almost immediate.

Jalen Etter, 18, a waiter at the Denny’s attached to a hotel where many evacuees were staying, said the restaurant did its highest sales ever on Saturday as the evacuees rolled into town.

Etter said that his supervisor had told him before his shift that day to "just be prepared."

"I’m like, ’well it can’t be too bad.’ I was wrong," he said on Wednesday. "People kept on coming in."

The influx meant the restaurant ran out of a lot of stock on Tuesday, he said.

"We had no steaks. We couldn’t serve burgers, no soup, salad, fish and chips, no milkshakes, any of that stuff," he said.

Hotel manager Zeny Patel at the Howard Johnson in Fort St. John said there was a change of ownership a month ago, and staff were still working on a deep clean and computer system transition when unhappy evacuees started showing up.

Patel said many didn’t have money, identification or proper luggage, and the hotel, and many others in town, were full of evacuees.

She said the government supports for evacuees were helping, but it was still a "stressful" situation to be in.

"We have to deal with their emotions, so we are supporting them as much as we can," she said. "Guests are our priority right now."

Some businesses have been rolling out the welcome mat for the evacuees.

Local cinema The Lido has been hosting free movie nights for them, including popcorn and drinks, sponsored by a pair of local energy companies. BarBurrito has been offering discounts for evacuees.

After the meeting Wednesday, Fraser said officials were able to answer peoples’ questions, but residents were "anxious about coming back to the community.

"I feel we’ve allayed some of their fears," he said.

He told evacuees that it was by "the grace of God" that the Parker Lake wildfire, fanned by winds of 70 kilometres per hour, didn’t sweep through the community of about 4,700 residents last Friday.

The BC Wildfire Service says the blaze about two kilometres west of the town now spans 127 square kilometres, up from 84 square kilometres earlier this week, but it has spread away from the town along its southern flank.

An update from the service on Thursday says winds over the fire were expected to shift, pushing smoke back into the area and challenging aerial firefighting efforts.

But it says a low−pressure system with cooler temperatures and higher humidity led to decreased fire activity on Wednesday, allowing crews to work closely along the fire’s edge and make progress on "direct attack objectives."

An update posted to the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality website Thursday says the weather has been favourable for crews working to fight the blaze and protect the town. But it says "extreme drought conditions" and rapidly changing variables mean the situation is still "precarious."

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