Homes ablaze in West Kelowna as B.C. declares state of emergency

Homes ablaze in West Kelowna as B.C. declares state of emergency
The McDougall Creek wildfire burns on the mountainside above houses in West Kelowna, B.C., on Friday, August 18, 2023.

British Columbia Premier David Eby has declared a provincewide state of emergency in response to “unprecedented” wildfires that have forced the evacuation of thousands more people in the past hour.

Homes were still burning in West Kelowna, B.C., on Friday after a devastating wildfire destroyed a significant number of properties overnight, in a battle that the city’s fire chief likened to “100 years of firefighting.”

Properties ruined by the fire include the historic Lake Okanagan Resort, which was engulfed Friday morning.

The fire was “exponentially worse” than expected, said Jason Brolund, chief of the West Kelowna fire department.

Wildfires experienced what the BC Wildfire service called “extreme” growth across the province Thursday and Friday amid a weather shift that brought high winds and dry lightning.

About 4,500 people across British Columbia were under evacuation orders and 23,500 under evacuation alerts, a provincial briefing was told.

Police and firefighters were going door-to-door in West Kelowna, where thousands of residents were ordered to evacuate from more than 2,500 properties as the hills surrounding their Okanagan community erupted in flames.

Brolund told the briefing that first responders became trapped while rescuing people who didn’t leave as the McDougall Creek wildfire advanced rapidly toward the community, describing the development as a firefighter’s “worst nightmare.”

“There were a number of risks taken to save lives and property last night,” Brolund said. “It didn’t have to be that way.”

Brolund also said a number of people were rescued from Trader’s Cove in West Kelowna after jumping into the water as a “last resort” to escape the flames.

Central Okanagan Regional District Chairman Loyal Woodridge said there was no known loss of life.

Brolund said the fire fight against wasn’t over and residents would be facing another “scary night” on Friday, with conditions projected to be even worse than those that whipped up the blaze Thursday.

The BC Wildfire Service said the fire had grown to 68 square kilometres in size, up from 11 square kilometres Thursday afternoon.

Brolund said it was a “devastating night,” probably the toughest of his career.

“We fought hard last night to protect our community. It was like 100 years of firefighting in one night,” he said.

The fire chief said “night turned to day” as the fire lit up the sky.

He said crews could not verify the number of homes destroyed because counting them wasn’t possible with fires actively burning.

“There was a significant number of structures lost,” Brolund said. “We need to stop this fire before it continues. Then we’ll do the counting. There are homes burning out there right now.”

West Kelowna resident Les York was in a boat on the lake when he watched the Lake Okanagan Resort burn down.

“We saw the lower building start to burn and we could hear explosions,” he said.

“It was crazy … you’d drive along and there’d be a house gone, and then you drive along and there’d be like a tree on fire in the middle of rocks.”

Steven Francis said he has had to flee the community three times in the nearly three decades he’s lived there.

But on Thursday, the “fiery snake” of flames that ripped through trees left him breathless.

“I was standing in awe,” Francis said. “It was a huge, monstrous, aggressive fire … it stretched and stretched.”

Embers from the McDougall Creek fire are suspected to have jumped Lake Okanagan and caused spot fires on the eastern shore, although Brolund said the cause could not be confirmed.

Those spot fires helped trigger a state of emergency in Kelowna, which is on the east side of the lake, around midnight. An emergency had already been declared Thursday in West Kelowna.

In addition to the West Kelowna properties under an evacuation order, a further 4,800 are under an evacuation alert, with residents told to be ready to flee at short notice.

Metro Vancouver resident Darren Chen arrived in Kelowna for a vacation Tuesday. On Thursday night, he watched as clouds turned red and black across the lake.

“On my way to downtown Kelowna, I saw the fires and the trees as tall as buildings bursting into flames,” said Chen, who is now trying to make his way home.

B.C. Premier David Eby issued a statement saying “hearts are with the people, communities and First Nations adversely affected by wildfires in B.C.”

“It was a devastating evening fighting fires and working to protect people and homes, with extremely difficult and rapidly evolving conditions continuing today.”

He urged people to obey evacuation orders, saying they “are not made lightly.”

Beyond West Kelowna, an evacuation alert was issued late Thursday for 216 properties in the Village of Lytton, threatened by the Kookipi Creek wildfire in the Fraser Canyon.

The wildfire service said hot, dry conditions resulted in “extreme fire behaviour” by the blaze, which crossed Highway 1 and caused the closure of the highway in both directions.

Cliff Chapman, operations director with the wildfire service, told the briefing that flames were driven by high winds and became up to 150 metres tall.

He said the magnitude of the fire led some to mistake its huge smoke cloud for a volcanic eruption

The Squamish-Lillooet Regional District meanwhile expanded an evacuation order in response to the fire northwest of Lillooet. It said RCMP and other authorities would be “expediting” the evacuation.

Chapman echoed Eby and said “now is not the time to ignore an evacuation order.”

“Our priority right now is human and responder safety,” he said, citing incidents in West Kelowna in which RCMP and firefighters had to be sent back into the fire zone to help people get out.

Such events took a “significant toll” on the mental health of staff.

Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma told the briefing that non-essential travel to Central and Southeast B.C. should be avoided. Firefighters should be given “space that they need to keep us safe,” she said.

Federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Harjit Sajjan said he was watching the situation in the Okanagan closely, calling it “very concerning.”

“Last night even I was getting pictures and video sent by close friends of mine and our government operations centre contacted the BC Operations Centre to get an update,” he said during a Zoom news conference Friday.

“We have offered up full federal support in support of this fire and I encourage all the residents to listen to the guidance of the local authorities in making sure they are safe.”

Fire crews had been bracing for what the operations director with the BC Wildfire Service predicted would be the most challenging days of the province’s record-breaking wildfire season.

Cliff Chapman said Thursday that a cold front was bringing high, unpredictable winds and dry lightning.

Of the 374 active fires in the province, 159 were out of control and more than a dozen were considered either highly visible or a threat to a community.

Francis, his wife and their four pets made their way to a crowded evacuation centre Thursday night and on Friday morning were sent to what he was told was one of the last available hotel rooms in the city.

He has been monitoring the fire situation through his home’s doorbell camera. He watched online Thursday as small groups of trees burned outside the house, which still appeared to be intact Friday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 18, 2023.

— With files from Brittany Hobson in Winnipeg, Bill Graveland in Calgary and Nono Shen in Vancouver

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian PressDirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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