By The Canadian Press
July 14, 2017, Williams Lake, B.C. - Crews battling wildfires in British Columbia prepared for the worst as officials predicted stronger winds over the weekend after a slight reprieve from the weather in recent days.
Kevin Skrepnek, chief information officer for the BC Wildfire Service, says the forecast called for sustained winds of 50 kilometres per hour.
''If that forecast comes to fruition, it's going to be a big challenge for us,'' he said.
About 180 wildfires were burning in central and southern B.C., including three around the Williams Lake, where 11,000 people were on standby to leave their homes.
Some rain was in the forecast for the area, but officials said showers would not be enough to douse active fires.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the creation of a new ad hoc cabinet committee on Friday to co-ordinate the federal government's response to the fires, including recovery and rebuilding efforts. The committee includes the ministers of justice, national defence, Indigenous and northern affairs, public safety and emergency preparedness.
A special air quality statement was in effect for the Interior and eastern parts of the province. Residents were warned to avoid strenuous activity outside, and children and seniors were encouraged to stay indoors.
Al Richmond, chairman of the Cariboo Regional District, said there was a noticeable difference in the air quality when he went to Prince George on Thursday night.
''It was refreshing for me to get into Prince George ... and breathe the fresh air instead of the smoke-filled air we are experiencing here in the Cariboo,'' he added.
Richmond attended a meeting for evacuees Thursday night and he said he told the gathering efforts were underway to restore some normality in fire-weary communities.
Regional district offices in Quesnel were slated to open Friday to provide permits allowing workers to travel on closed roads to reach the open pit copper-molybdenum mine operated by Taseko Mines Ltd.
The provincial government has also been asked to allow some movement on closed sections of Highway 97 so that people who left their homes in Williams Lake and went to Prince George could drive south to Vancouver.
The province declared a state of emergency last week and more than 16,000 people have been affected by evacuation orders, with thousands more on alert.
The province said evacuees must remain patient and wait for official notice before they can return home. It has also warned that violating orders can divert firefighters from fires to help with avoidable rescues.