131 structures destroyed but no lives lost in Shuswap, B.C., wildfire

131 structures destroyed but no lives lost in Shuswap, B.C., wildfire
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with firefighters from the Central Okanagan on Aug. 25, 2023.

Officials say about 170 homes and other buildings have been reported damaged or destroyed by wildfires in the Shuswap region of British Columbia, almost doubling the known structural losses in the province’s ravaged Interior.

But Tracy Hughes, an information officer with the Columbia Shuswap Regional District, said the Canada Task Force 1 search and rescue team that conducted the survey had good news too — no bodies had been found in the ruins.

“We’re all very grateful … there were cheers in our EOC (emergency operations centre) when we heard about this news,” Hughes told a briefing Friday.

Erick Thompson, another information officer for the district, said 131 structures had been destroyed and a further 37 damaged.

He cautioned that the damage assessment by the search team had been hindered by ongoing blazes and the numbers could change.

The ferocious Bush Creek East fire in the region is the target of the most intense wildfire fight in B.C., with thousands of residents ordered to leave their homes.

More than 200 structural and wildland firefighters are engaged in the battle against that blaze, along with more than 100 pieces of heavy equipment and 17 helicopters, according to the BC Wildfire Service. It said 100 Mexican firefighters were also set to join the battle Friday.

About 370 fires continue to burn in B.C., where up to 30,000 people have been forced out of their homes over the past week, although many have since been allowed to return.

There have been recent successes, with two major blazes near Lake Okanagan to the south of the Shuswap now listed as being held by firefighters.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in the Okanagan region Friday, where he said stories of heroism have emerged from B.C.’s wildfire battle, but lessons also needed to be learned.

Trudeau said the fires also showed the importance of recognizing “how to rebuild safely”.

“There are lots of extraordinary stories of heroism, effectiveness, things that we’ve learnt from years past (and) put into place now, but there’s a lot more to learn, a lot more to do,” he said after visiting firefighters and fire chiefs at West Kelowna Fire Rescue Station 31.

He said with “intense weather events” becoming frequent, “we have to learn very much from what worked, and what didn’t work as well as it could have.”

He said insurance will likely become more difficult to obtain, and conversations are also needed about better forest management.

Trudeau’s visit came after the last travel restriction for the Okanagan was lifted, alongside evacuation orders within the City of Kelowna following recent rainfall.

B.C. Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma said in a statement late Thursday that travel restrictions to West Kelowna were to be lifted as of midnight.

The ban for Kelowna, Penticton, Vernon and Kamloops was lifted earlier this week after being placed over much of the region on Aug. 19 to ensure there were accommodations for evacuees and emergency personnel.

The Central Okanagan Emergency Operations Centre has downgraded all orders within Kelowna, as well as those for some homes in West Kelowna Estates and more than 300 properties in the District of Lake Country, to alert status.

However, officials said Friday that almost 4,500 properties remain under evacuation orders.

The centre said they include 2,663 properties in West Kelowna, 655 in Lake Country, 1,114 in the Regional District of Central Okanagan Electoral Area, and 50 in the Westbank First Nation. A further 13,773 properties remain on evacuation alert.

Trudeau’s visit, lasting several hours, started at the First Nation’s offices, where he discussed the firefighting operation with Loyal Wooldridge, board chair of the Central Okanagan Regional District.

Trudeau met with Chief Robert Louie, as well as West Kelowna Mayor Gord Milsom and Kelowna Mayor Tom Dyas. He asked officials about the morale of residents.

Almost 200 homes were lost or damaged around Lake Okanagan in the past week.

Two Clifton-McKinley and Lake Country fires are now listed as being held by firefighters, but the McDougall Creek fire threatening West Kelowna remains out of control.

So too does the Bush Creek East fire, listed at 410 square kilometres in size.

Derek Sutherland, director of the Columbia Shuswap Emergency Operations Centre, said there were areas that Canada Task Force 1 was unable to access because of dangerous conditions.

But an online dashboard listing properties known to have been damaged or destroyed would soon be available, hopefully later Friday, he said.

The B.C. transport ministry said Friday that work was underway to re-open Highway 1, which has been severed in several locations due to the Bush Creek Fire and other blazes.

The section between Boston Bar and Sorrento in the Shuswap region reopened Friday morning, but a section from Boston Bar to Lytton, closed since Aug. 17, will remain shut through the weekend.

Wildfires continue to rage in other parts of B.C., including the Stein Mountain blaze near Lytton now at close to 33 square kilometres.

The fire forced the Thompson-Nicola Regional District to expand its evacuation order to two additional properties in Blue Sky Country north of Lytton Thursday afternoon.

The regional district was able to rescind evacuation orders for 38 properties adjacent to the Ross Moore Lake wildfire south of Kamloops at around the same time.

In Metro Vancouver, the regional district has issued an air-quality advisory due to high concentrations of fine particulates, mostly due to the fires burning across B.C. and Washington state.

It says the advisory, which also covers parts of the Fraser Valley, will remain in effect until further notice.

The fires burning in B.C. include 145 classified as out of control and 12 designated “wildfires of note” because they are highly visible or pose a threat to public safety.

To date, wildfires have scorched almost 18,000 square kilometres of land in British Columbia, with 71 per cent of the fires caused by lightning and 23 per cent triggered by human activity.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 25, 2023.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian PressDirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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