‘A great feeling’: Okanagan wildfire battle has turned a corner, say fire chiefs
By Darryl Greer, The Canadian PressHeadlines News Wildfires Emergency & disaster management bc wildfire service bc wildfires Canada wildfire season Canada wildfires NWT wildfires wildfires
Aug. 20, 2023, Kelowna, B.C. – Fire chiefs say the fight against devastating wildfires that have been rampaging around Lake Okanagan, B.C., has turned a corner after days of destruction.
West Kelowna fire chief Jason Brolund said “things are finally looking better,” with an army of 500 firefighters engaged in a battle that is now in a new phase.
He told a news briefing Sunday that no more homes in West Kelowna had been destroyed by the McDougall Creek wildfire in the past 24 hours and it was possible to begin to “talk about recovery.”
Kelowna fire chief Travis Whiting told the briefing he was also “very excited” about the advances being made, with his crews optimistic and in good spirits.
He said there had been decreased fire activity, compared to the extreme behaviour of fires in recent days as they tore through neighbourhoods and destroyed homes in both West Kelowna and Kelowna, on either side of the lake.
The positive developments in the Central Okanagan come amid a desperate battle against hundreds of fires across the province, with 30,000 people under evacuation orders and a provincial state of emergency in effect.
“It’s a day when we can take a deep breath” and focus on strategy, said Whiting.
Brolund said he was “finally feeling like we’re moving forward, rather than moving backwards.”
“And that’s a great feeling for all of us to have,” he said. “In saying that, make no mistake, there will be difficult days ahead.”
Lake Country fire chief Darren Lee became emotional as he paid tribute to the firefighters, some of whom had fought to save their own communities from destruction.
“I just want to congratulate all our firefighters. You know, for thousands of years, just regular people step up to to be warriors to protect their villages, protect their neighbours. There’s people out there working 36, 48-hour shifts, and they take an absolute beating,” Lee said, choking up.
“They know their family’s being evacuated while they’re trying to defend their neighbour’s home and they just keep going.”
On Sunday Prime Minister Justin Trudeau posted on social media that the federal government is deploying military assets to B.C. and will be helping with evacuations, staging and other logistical tasks.
Speaking in Charlottetown, he said the fire situation in B.C. and the Northwest Territories is “extraordinarily serious.”
“(Canadians have) stepped up, have shown who they truly are, as people are there for each other, welcoming friends, neighbours, strangers, into their homes, into their communities, to support them.”
B.C.’s fire fight continued on multiple fronts Sunday, but no new evacuation orders were added overnight to those already in place, covering thousands of properties across the province.
B.C. Premier David Eby said Saturday the situation was “grim” as he announced an emergency travel ban to fire zones to free up accommodation for evacuees and fire crews.
The province’s last new evacuation order was issued at 1:33 p.m. Saturday for residents of the tiny lakeside community of Sorrento on Highway 1, due to the Lower East Adams Lake fire complex that has caused extensive regional destruction in the Columbia Shuswap in the southern Interior.
In Central Okanagan to the south, no new orders have been issued since 9:18 p.m. Friday.
Most of the province’s evacuees are from the central Okanagan. Whiting said Saturday that about 10,700 properties were evacuated in the region, with a further 9,500 on evacuation alert.
There has been no known loss of life in the Central Okanagan, while the number of properties destroyed has yet to be tallied.
About 36,000 people are subject to evacuation alerts across B.C., warned to be ready to leave their homes at a moment’s notice, the government said.
Some evacuation orders are being lifted. Residents of several RV parks in the Okanagan on Highway 3 that had been threatened by two fires are being allowed back, although they remain subject to evacuation alerts.
Kelowna’s Prospera Place arena, home to the Kelowna Rockets hockey team, is now the temporary home for many displaced from their homes.
Volunteers mixed with evacuees at the facility on Saturday afternoon, filling plates from tables of food.
Jason Bedell, the emergency support services supervisor for the Kelowna Fire Department, said they’re seeing “monumental evacuee needs.”
But they are also facing the “unique problem” of being inundated with donations of perishable food from individuals.
“What we are asking is if people are willing and able to donate, please look to your make local food banks or your non-profits,” he said.
“If there are commercial kitchens that are looking to do food, they can come to Prospera and meet with a staff member, get on a schedule that we’re creating as we’re finding all the foods coming at once and we don’t want to waste anything.”
With other neighbouring communities dealing with their own fire issues, Bedell said co-ordination has been a challenge, but he called the flood of donations a “testament to the community’s spirit.”
“What we’re missing out on right now is trained volunteers,” he said.
“But we’re working diligently with our partners at the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, who’s providing us with additional resources.
“We are pulling out all stops to make sure we have what we need.”
To the north, the Columbia Shuswap Regional District said firefighters have been “working tirelessly” in the battle against the Lower East Adams Lake fire complex, which has forced the evacuation of more than 3,000 properties.
The merged fire complex has officially been designated the Bush Creek East fire and the BC Wildfire Service said the combined fire is more than 410 square kilometres.
District officials confirmed Saturday there were structural losses due to the explosive growth of the fire, which the BC Wildfire services said raced more than 20 kilometres in about half a day.
John MacLean with the Columbia Shuswap Regional District said no lives have been lost.
Firefighting officials have said cooler and calmer conditions Saturday helped crews battle the fires in the southern Interior, but they are expecting difficult days ahead as conditions warm up again Sunday.
B.C. officials have restricted travel for the purpose of staying in temporary accommodations such as hotels and campgrounds in several communities in the Okanagan.
Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma has said those accommodations are no longer available for anything other than essential travel so the rooms can be available for firefighters and evacuees.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Eby discussed the wildfire situation Saturday. Trudeau’s office said the prime minister promised to provide all necessary aid from the federal government.
The BC Wildfire Service lists more than 380 active wildfires burning in the province, including 14 that are considered “of note,” meaning they are highly visible or threatening public safety.
The 100-square-kilometre Kookipi Creek fire has forced evacuation orders or alerts in multiple communities in recent days, including the Village of Lytton, that was almost destroyed by wildfires in 2021.
The fire, which has been burning for six weeks but erupted in size recently, forced the closure of Highway 1 on Sunday for about 105 kilometres between Hope and Lytton.
–With files from Brieanna Charlebois and Ashley Joannou in Vancouver and CHNL
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