July 19, 2017 / 7:30 PM / a month ago

State of emergency in British Columbia extended as wildfires rage

VANCOUVER, July 19 (Reuters) - British Columbia's government took the unprecedented step on Wednesday of extending a state of emergency by two weeks as it battled 155 wildfires that have forced nearly 50,000 people from their homes.

The province's Premier John Horgan said evacuated households would receive C$600 ($476.53) from the government to cover basic needs for every 14 days they cannot return home. The government issued the first such payment two weeks ago.

"Traditionally when an emergency is declared people are usually back in their homes within the two week period. That may not be the case for many individuals," Horgan told reporters, in his first major announcement since taking office on Tuesday.

On July 7, the Canadian province declared its first state of emergency since 2003 as gusty winds fanned fires that were caused by lightning and humans in the tinder-dry central and southern regions.

Canadian military aircraft have joined thousands of firefighters from as far away as Australia to battle the fires.

On Tuesday, 155 fires were raging in the province, down from 163 on Sunday, British Columbia chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek said.

Horgan said stipends to households would come from a C$100 million fund established by the province earlier in July to deal with the fires, which have shut mines and timber operations and damaged homes and electrical infrastructure.

The estimated area of land burnt since the beginning of the wildfire season was 327,000 hectares (808,034 acres), costing the province C$98.4 million.

Residents of Cache Creek, a small ranching town of 1,000 in south-central British Columbia, were allowed to return home on Tuesday after 11 days in shelters.

West Fraser Timber Co and privately held Tolko, among the largest Canadian producers of forestry products, and Norbord Inc, the world's largest maker of oriented strand board used in the construction of houses, suspended some operations.

Tolko said on Monday that many of its employees had been forced from homes.

Major pipeline companies in region, including Kinder Morgan Canada Ltd, a unit of Kinder Morgan Inc, have created fire breaks, installed sprinklers and taken other measures to protect operations.

Enbridge Inc, which took a natural gas compressor station offline and canceled planned maintenance work, said on Sunday it had no timeline for restarting the station. ($1 = 1.2591 Canadian dollars) (Reporting by Nicole Mordant in Vancouver; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

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