One home burned in B.C. wildfire, hundreds evacuated, thousands more on notice

One home burned in B.C. wildfire, hundreds evacuated, thousands more on notice
WatchA fast-moving wildfire near Penticton has destroyed property and has thousands on evacuation alert. Tess van Straaten has the latest.

At least one home has been burned in a wildfire raging near Penticton, B.C., that has forced hundreds from their homes and put thousands more on alert to be ready to leave quickly.

The fire had grown to 14 square kilometres on Wednesday after it was spotted a day earlier burning above Skaha Lake, not far from the city’s boundary.

The Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen ordered the evacuation of 319 properties in the path of the fire on Tuesday.

District chairwoman Karla Kozakevich said they were trying to contact the owner of a home that had burned.

Evacuation alerts were also issued for about 3,700 other homes near the fire on the southeast side of Penticton.

Mayor John Vassilaki is among those told they may have to evacuate if the fire flares.

He said the thought of having to leave his home is troubling.

“My wife is concerned, 51 years of history from our family – that’s how long we’ve been married – is in that home and it would take a lot more than a day to pack it in a truck.”

If the fire spreads and a larger evacuation is ordered, city manager Donny van Dyk said neighbouring cities are being contacted about the availability of large spaces and the municipality is looking for hotel rooms more than 150 kilometres away.

“Rest assured, that should an evacuation occur, we will have the ability to put a roof over people. It may not be as close to home as we’d like.”

He said facilities would comply with the provincial health officer’s directions on physical distancing to protect against COVID-19 infection.

The B.C. Wildfire Service said the uncontained blaze is burning in steep and rocky terrain. It said most of the fire’s growth was caused by overnight winds.

A cause of the wildfire has not yet been determined.

Vassilaki said there are no reports of lost buildings in Penticton and protecting structures is a key priority.

More than 100 fires flared in the province over the last few days after lightning storms and a heatwave that raised the wildfire danger rating to high or extreme across most of southern and central B.C.

READ MORE: Multiple wildfires burning out of control on Vancouver Island, rain on the way

East of the Penticton fire, an 18-hectare wildfire was burning along Highway 33 between Beaverdell and Carmi. The Regional District of Kootenay Boundary has placed 44 properties on evacuation alert.

The wildfire service says that blaze was likely sparked by lightning and it has provided aerial and heavy equipment support to the local fire department.

The Penticton area is familiar with out-of-control fires.

A large blaze in 1994 forced 3,500 residents to flee and destroyed 18 homes, but a major emergency during a pandemic is something new.

Ron Obirek, the regional district director who represents the area, is under an evacuation order and was staying with friends across Skaha Lake.

He said he woke up on Wednesday thinking the whole thing was a bad dream, until he looked outside.

“And as I’m watching the flames, I’m watching the helicopter pilots and you can see them hit the flames with their bucket and douse it and it’s happening right in front of you,” he said in a telephone interview.

“You can see your neighbours’ homes are being saved by that response.”

The regional district had set up a reception centre in Penticton but it said on its website that evacuees and those on alert should register online.

Complicating the situation for the regional district is that it was the victim of a ransomware attack last week. Kozakevich said elected officials and staff lost access to their emails.

Heat was expected to continue for another day in Penticton with Environment Canada predicting temperatures in the low 30s, while showers are forecasts by Friday. The city broke a 57-year record on Tuesday with a high temperature of 37.5.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 19, 2020.

Tess van StraatenTess van Straaten

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