Wildfire evacuations ease in Osoyoos, B.C., after frightening weekend

Wildfire evacuations ease in Osoyoos, B.C., after frightening weekend
The Eagle Bluff wildfire is seen burning from Anarchist Mountain, outside of Osoyoos, B.C., in a Saturday, July 29, 2023, handout photo. Fire crews near Osoyoos, B.C., are watching wind levels and direction closely as the Eagle Bluff wildfire continues to burn out of control just kilometres away from the town on the U.S.-Canada border.

Hundreds of people are being allowed to return to their homes in Osoyoos in southern British Columbia after winds pushed back a wildfire that threatened the town over the weekend.

The town endured a terrifying night on Saturday after the Eagle Bluff fire crossed the border with the United States and surged over hills overlooking Osoyoos.

Erick Thompson of the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen says at a briefing that there are 192 properties now on evacuation order, down from 732.

But 2,632 homes are under evacuation alert, and their residents must be ready to leave at short notice.

Winds have been a key factor in the battle to save Osoyoos, with Environment Canada calling for northwest winds through Monday before gusts of 20 kilometres per hour were forecast to ease late in the day.

The BC Wildfire Service says that helped push the Eagle Bluff wildfire away from Osoyoos, less than two days after flames sparked in Washington state raced over the border.

Shaelee Stearns of the BC Wildfire Service said at a briefing that the fire grew to more than 14 square kilometres on the Canadian side. Authorities in Washington say it measures more than 40 square kilometres on the U.S. side.

Osoyoos has a population of about 5,000 but that is swollen in summer by visitors who come to enjoy the town’s lake and surroundings.

They included Vancouver real estate agent Walter Wells, who arrived at the Watermark Beach Resort with his wife on Friday, to celebrate their 25th anniversary. He said they thought the nearby fire might cause smoky skies, but didn’t foresee the “horror” that unfolded Saturday.

“On the southernmost part of the hills, we saw, to our horror, a massive line of orange fire was cresting the hill. We couldn’t believe it and it was just massive,” he said in an interview Monday.

“We could see trees almost exploding. It would just catch a big tree and it would just burst up in flames.”

He said an emergency alert came through their phones around 11 p.m. Saturday and their hotel told them to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

“We were on alert, but we were extremely close to the fire and we were truly scared,” he said. “It’s one thing to watch it on TV, but the mountain was on fire right above us.”

He said he and his wife decided it wasn’t safe to leave Saturday, but on Sunday they packed up and left on a four-hour drive north to Wells’s brother’s cabin. By the time they left, the smoke in Osoyoos was “the most vile thing I’ve ever smelled … We just couldn’t take it anymore.”

“We’re lucky to be alive,” he said, adding that he was impressed by the speed at which firefighting efforts were mobilized.

“God bless those guys because I don’t know how a human being could fight that fire.”

The Eagle Bluff fire is one of more than 350 active blazes in the province, according to the BC Wildfire Service, with just under 200 classified as out of control and 14 ranked as fires of note that are either highly visible or pose potential threats to public safety.

The fight to save Osoyoos came in spite of the wildfire danger rating having fallen sharply in recent weeks because of rain and cooler weather in most areas of B.C., except the southern and southeast corners.

That easing prompted officials in the Prince George Fire Centre, representing the northeast quarter of the province, to announce plans to lift a campfire ban in that region, but the decision was reversed just a short time later.

“Upon further review and with the wildfire season being experienced in B.C., we have made the decision the Category 1 prohibition will remain in effect,” the wildfire service said in a social media post on Sunday.

“The decision to implement or rescind a campfire ban is based on science, however as a high level of activity continues around the province, we want to ensure all wildfire personnel are responding to current and potential naturally caused wildfires,” the post said.

Elsewhere, a firefighter was killed before the weekend while fighting the massive Donnie Creek fire in northeastern British Columbia, the second such death this month in the province and the fourth in Canada during a record-breaking fire season.

Police said the contract firefighter from Ontario died after his heavy-duty ATV rolled over on a steep gravel road.

The death came just two weeks after 19-year-old Devyn Gale, who was in her third season as a wildfire fighter, was hit and killed by a falling tree while working on a blaze near her hometown of Revelstoke, B.C.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2023.

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