A forest fire that has forced about 2,500 people from their homes in British Columbia’s Okanagan region doubled on Friday to about the size of Stanley Park – a high-profile example of the 160 wildfires causing evacuations across the province in an unusually active forest-fire year.
Aircraft and ground crews were trying to contain the Smith Creek fire near West Kelowna, which not only caused the evacuations of 1,100 homes, but threatened power supplies as it burned near a main feeder line that serves several communities. By Friday, it was about 20 per cent contained.
Andrew Stuckey, who lives in West Kelowna, sat up all night in the rocking chair on his porch watching the flames strip the branches off trees as the fire galloped across the mountain.
“A tree would go up and it would just torch, 100 feet into the air,” said Mr. Stuckey, whose home is west of the blaze, across a ravine. At times, the fire looked to be less than 400 metres away, he said.
“It’s a bit unsettling,” Mr. Stuckey said. “You sleep with one eye open. You’ve got your nostrils in the air smelling for smoke.”
His teenage kids have packed their bags in case they need to bolt, and have prepared an emergency kit, heeding warnings from BC Hydro that power lines could go down.
Mr. Stuckey said most people in the community are perched in lawn chairs in front of their homes watching the blaze. Many of them recall the fires of 2009 and 2003.
“It’s tense in the community,” he said. “You read it off people and you feel it; you feel for them.”
Human activity is believed to have started the fire. Over 24 hours, it surged from about two square kilometres to four, equal to the size of the famous Vancouver park.
Kevin Skrepnek, the chief provincial fire information officer, said the Smith Creek fire is not even among the 20 biggest forest fires burning in B.C. The largest is the Red Deer Creek fire near Tumbler Ridge in northern B.C, which covers about 35 square kilometres.
“But it’s one of the top-priority fires in the province right now because of where it is,” Mr. Skrepnek said, referring to West Kelowna, a community adjoining the Okanagan city of Kelowna, which is the third largest population centre in British Columbia.
Of the 17 so-called wildfires of note on the B.C. Wildfire Management web page, nine are classified as interface fires, meaning they threaten property and population. Over all, about 140 fires are burning across the province, according to the branch.
“It’s quite a bit busier than last season,” Mr. Skrepnek said, pointing to a surge of lightning-sparked fires in northern B.C. and intense interface fires in the southern Interior and Okanagan Valley. “If this level of activity continues, then, when the dust settles, it will have been an above-average season.”
He said B.C. is feeling the effects of a dry, hot spring and early summer that primed forests for ignition by lightning. But he said officials are hoping cooler temperatures and rain over the next few days will bring relief in many areas.
The justice ministry covers emergency management issues, and on Friday it said there are eight orders to evacuate communities across the province, and 11 alerts warning residents in other communities they might have to move. It said it did not have overall numbers of British Columbians affected. This week, more than 1,000 residents of Hudson Hope in northeastern B.C. had to flee their homes. They were allowed back on Thursday.
In a statement, the forests ministry said B.C. firefighting costs have ranged from $47-million to $382-million in 2010. The province spent an estimated $122-million in the last fiscal year and has allocated $161-million for 2014-15.
Premier Christy Clark, whose riding encompasses the Smith Creek wildfire, was in the community on Friday. She said the province is spending about $5-million a day combating wildfires, an amount that has already blown the government’s entire firefighting budget.
“We are not going to stop spending money because it’s expensive,” she told reporters
In West Kelowna, the flames were in sight of several subdivisions, including a new one. Aside from the evacuated homes, another 150 properties were told to be prepared to leave.
The blaze was burning within 100 metres of the main feeder powerline that service the towns of Peachland, Westbank and West Kelowna. Residents were urged to prepare to be without power and self-sustaining for several days.
BC Hydro spokeswoman Mora Scott said no power lines are damaged in Kelowna or Hudson’s Hope, and crews have sprayed fire retardant on transmission lines.
“There is one line that we’re watching very, very closely,” Ms. Scott said, noting that on Thursday, the Kelowna line was in the path of the blaze. Since then the fire has backed away, but hydro crews are on standby.
An emergency centre was set up at a secondary school in West Kelowna. Evacuated residents were provided food and accommodation vouchers that are valid for 72 hours and can be renewed.
As of Friday afternoon, about 1,200 residents had registered with the centre.
Retired schoolteacher Alva Felettig was at the centre to volunteer. Police ordered her and her husband out of West Kelowna. “It’s unsettling, to say the least. It’s scary, you don’t know what’s happening, but you go ahead and deal with it,” she said before bustling off to register more arrivals.
Meanwhile, Bev Buchanan was on standby, ready to hop into the camper with her husband and their chihuahua if the evacuation notice covering her house is upgraded to an evacuation order.
Ms. Buchanan, who moved into the area about 25 years ago so her husband could work at a winery, said they were on evacuation notice in 2009 and 2003. Their property has never been damaged.
Ms. Buchanan says it is frustrating being on watch every dry season, but the beauty of the region makes it worthwhile. “There’s not much you can do it about it,” she said.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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