Officials in British Columbia’s Shuswap and Okanagan regions are shifting some of their attention from wildfire response to the challenges of recovery as flames abate and many evacuees begin returning home, although crews continue to fight out-of-control blazes.
Major infrastructure woes will confront both regions, including hundreds of downed power poles and cables.
Neighbourhoods in West Kelowna sustained extensive damage to the power grid and other key infrastructure when the McDougall Creek wildfire swept through nearly two weeks ago, the community’s Fire Chief Jason Brolund told a briefing on Monday.
The damage is especially severe in the West Kelowna Estates area, he said.
“The power poles have burned, the lines are on the ground, the transformers are tipped over. All of that is being removed, and it’s being rebuilt.”
Crews are also assessing whether additional key infrastructure, including the water supply, drainage and roads will need repair or reconstruction, he said.
The number of properties around Okanagan Lake that have been destroyed or significantly damaged ticked up to 189 from 181 after further assessment, officials with the Regional District of Central Okanagan said at the briefing.
Sally Ginter, chief administrative officer for the district, said operations are transitioning to recovery, and residents of areas still under evacuation alert should recheck the district’s database of damaged and destroyed properties.
“Our hearts go out to all who have been impacted by this unprecedented fire event, and particularly to those whose homes have been significantly damaged or lost.”
About 150 kilometres north, in B.C.’s Shuswap region, another fast-moving blaze destroyed or damaged nearly 170 properties as well as critical infrastructure.
Mike McCulley, an information officer with the BC Wildfire Service, said at a separate briefing on Monday that the Bush Creek East wildfire had caused a “massive amount of damage.”
There are hundreds of burned hydro poles and downed power lines “everywhere,” he told the briefing held by the Columbia Shuswap Regional District.
Crews are also working to remove “danger trees” that pose a risk to public safety along roads in the area, McCulley said.
John MacLean, director of the emergency operations centre for the regional district, said BC Hydro crews are working to replace infrastructure as quickly as possible.
Staff with the district were expected to start reaching out to residents of the Shuswap region whose properties have been affected by wildfire, he said.
While fire behaviour has picked up with hot and dry conditions over the last few days, McCulley said there’s been no major growth and the nights are getting longer, which should be “a huge help” in the battle against the 430-square-kilometre blaze.
Brolund also highlighted gains in the battle against the McDougall Creek wildfire – responsible for much of the destruction along the shores of Okanagan Lake.
Evacuation orders have lifted for more than 1,000 properties since Friday, including West Kelowna’s Rose Valley Elementary School, where teachers are starting to set up for classes, he said.
Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma said about 8,000 people in B.C. remained evacuated from their homes as of Monday, down significantly from around 30,000 a week ago.
But Ma acknowledged there have been challenges as the province and regional officials shift to post-fire recovery in the Central Okanagan, and that some residents have not been reimbursed after paying for their own emergency accommodation instead of waiting for referrals.
Ma said payments under the Emergency Support Services scheme were supposed to be for evacuees who were unable to pay for their own immediate needs and were “not typically provided retroactively.”
But she said she was aware that the high volume of support requested in West Kelowna had created “abnormally long” wait times, and she had asked local authorities to determine if individual cases may require additional support “with compassion and flexibility.”
Residents who did not receive the support they needed should call a hotline to seek assistance.
Meanwhile, Ma urged people not to let their guard down, as 375 fires are still actively burning throughout the province — some just beyond communities that have seen their evacuation orders rescinded.
Brolund said those needing support and increased attention include his West Kelowna firefighters, who witnessed the destruction of their community while shouldering the stresses of combating a large, fast-moving wildfire.
“I need to sit down with the firefighters from my department,” he said. “We need to have a beer. We need to talk about all the things we saw, all of the things that we did. Their mental health is also my concern.”
Brolund added the transition to recovery does not mean fire dangers have disappeared.
“There is still a lot of fire behind our community,” Brolund said. “We flew over quite a portion of it yesterday and were able to see that this fire will be with us for a while — not in the streets and neighbourhoods, but in the hills above.”
Brad Litke, a BC Wildfire Service senior operations officer, said crews on Monday were planning a number of controlled burns in the Central Okanagan fire area to remove fuel, as relative humidity in some places had dropped to as low as 18 per cent.
Litke also said firefighting operations yesterday were disrupted by a drone flying in the area, which the authorities seized.
“This is a reminder that these drones create a significant hazard to our aerial operations and to our pilots and crews,” he said.
The BC Wildfire Service said more than 250 firefighters and field staff continue to battle the Grouse complex of fires around Lake Okanagan, with more than two-thirds devoted to the 126-square-kilometre McDougall Creek fire that swept down on West Kelowna on Aug. 17.
The biggest firefighting operation in B.C. is in the Shuswap, where the wildfire service’s McCulley said upwards of 250 firefighters, 97 structure protection staff and 84 support staff are involved in the battle with the Bush Creek East fire.
Persistent heat continued Monday in parts of British Columbia.
Environment Canada said several communities in northern B.C. were facing heat warnings, with daily high temperatures reaching in excess of 30 degrees.
Temperatures in Fort Nelson on Monday reached 32 C after breaking its historic high record for Aug. 27 on Sunday at 32.4 C.
Historic daily high temperature records were also broken Sunday in Fort St. John at 28.8 C, and Terrace, which reached 30.2 C.
Wildfire smoke has also led to large swaths of British Columbia being placed under air quality advisories, which cover Metro Vancouver, much of Vancouver Island and communities such as Whistler, Kamloops, Kelowna, Golden, Fernie, Quesnel, Prince George and Smithers.
Highway 1 through the Fraser Canyon meanwhile remained closed as fire crews battle the Kookipi Creek blaze that has been threatening Lytton and other communities, forcing evacuations.
Chuck Chiang and Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 28, 2023.