It was a scene of confusion, sadness and fear in what is usually an idyllic lakeside community as a “drastic wind shift” caught fire forecasters off guard in British Columbia’s Shuswap region on Wednesday.
The Lower East Adams Lake wildfire has been burning since mid-July, but the terrain was too rough for groundcrews, and the fire was being held with air support until things changed dramatically.
It’s the latest wildfire to threaten properties in several parts of southern B.C., where evacuation orders and alerts have been upgraded as that fire flares.
Residents of nearly 100 properties were ordered out late Wednesday by the Columbia Shuswap Regional District, while an evacuation alert was posted for 75 more properties in the area about 20 kilometres north of Chase, B.C.
Connie Berkley, who owns the Adams Lake Store across the lake from the evacuation area, described a scene of confusion as people sobbed over having to leave their homes and their pets, wondering where to park their cars and deal with their boats.
There is just one road in and out of the area, which includes a cable ferry with limited capacity, and residents were waiting to be taken to the other side of the lake Wednesday afternoon “when all hell broke loose,” Berkley said in an interview on Thursday.
With the fire flaring for a couple of weeks, Berkley said she and others have been left wondering why it wasn’t doused earlier.
“They should have been on it way before they were,” she said. “All I can say is it’s very sad for me as a business owner and as someone who lives in this beautiful country, and that to just let the trees burn makes no sense to me.”
Berkley said she should be going into her busiest time before a long weekend, but now only fire crews are ferried in to help with the fast-moving blaze threatening homes on the other side of the lake.
“I have two months to make my money, July and August, so I have a store full of stock for my biggest weekend,” she said. “The roads are closed, the campgrounds are closed, the lake is closed and what am I gonna do with all this stock?”
Forrest Tower with the BC Wildfire Service said the blaze had been moving away from structures until the “drastic wind shift” caught forecasters by surprise.
The fire was on a steep, inaccessible slope and the winds pushed it aggressively toward the community of Dorian Bay, where it’s now licking at people’s backyards, he said.
“Every indication was that the fire would be stable,” he said. “Unfortunately, like I said, there was a very large anomalous wind shift just kind of localized in that area.”
Tower said it was a stressful situation for crews and residents involved, and a “very intense and scary night for people that were evacuated.”
Marinus Goossen, a marine manager with WaterBridge Ferries, said the Adams Lake cable ferry worked through the night getting evacuees out and fire crews in.
“When I arrived on scene at just before midnight, there was an immense amount of traffic and concerned people and trying to figure out what their next steps were and where they were going,” he said. “There are a lot of unhappy people, but in any crisis situation there’s going to be unhappy people because people don’t like to be displaced, and I don’t blame them.”
Elsewhere, the Thompson-Nicola Regional District also declared a local state of emergency related to the 25-square-kilometre wildfire that was likely sparked by lightning on July 12.
The BC Wildfire Service says its crews stayed on the fire lines overnight, structure protection teams were “fully engaged,” and no buildings had been lost at last report.
Steep, inaccessible terrain and gusty winds were complicating efforts to control the blaze, a problem also faced by crews battling the Downton Lake fire that witnesses say burned about a dozen homes and outbuildings at Gun Lake, about 110 kilometres north of Whistler.
An evacuation alert for that blaze was extended Wednesday to include the tiny community of Gold Bridge and several surrounding areas, while the evacuation order covering more than 200 properties surrounding Gun and Lajoie lakes remains posted.
Cliff Chapman, operations director with BC Wildfire Service, said this week would be challenging as hot and dry conditions persist.
The volatile fire conditions forced BC Parks to indefinitely close the South Chilcotin Mountains Park because its main access points are through the area threatened by the Downton Lake fire.
The wildfire service was reporting about 350 active wildfires in British Columbia on Thursday, with 188 of those considered out of control and 13 fires of note that are either highly visible or pose potential threats to public safety.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2023.