Shelley Davies started crying as she gazed across the valley toward her smoke-shrouded home on Rosalee Lane, in West Kelowna. Twenty minutes earlier, she had learned from a neighbour that their entire block was in flames. She drove to the hillside near Mount Boucherie to try to see for herself.
Ms. Davies had evacuated with her husband on Thursday night, after an RCMP officer came pounding on their door, ordering them out. She grabbed their fire bin as they ran to the car. Inside were some photos, essential documents, and a crystal vase her grandmother had given her when she was seven years old.
As she watching her home of seven years burn, Ms. Davies couldn’t stop thinking of a strange coincidence: her family had evacuated on Aug. 17, her daughter’s 40th birthday, 20 years to the day after the city was threatened by the Okanagan Mountain Fire.
“I’ll never forget it – it was my daughter’s 20th birthday. Now, here we are again.”
The B.C. Wildfire Service announced Saturday morning that the McDougall Creek Wildfire had grown to 10,500 hectares, though Jerrad Schroeder with BCWS said the fire’s true size was likely far bigger than that.
Officials will not say how many homes and businesses have been lost to the McDougall Creek fire so far. West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund told a news conference on Saturday that he couldn’t speculate because he hadn’t “been able to go in and see yet.”
“We will start counting the number of houses when we stop fighting the fires that are burning,” he added.
Friday was “one of the most difficult days of firefighting our department has ever faced,” said Mr. Brolund. His firefighters faced situations where “entire streets full of houses” went up in flames simultaneously. “This event is going to leave a long, lasting scar on our community,” he said.
Mr. Brolund said the previous night’s battle got a boost from calmer and cooler conditions, but the fight continues to expand.
B.C. Premier David Eby declared a state of emergency on Friday night in response to what he called an “unprecedented” fire threat. On Saturday, the premier said the number of people ordered to evacuate wildfire zones had more than doubled to 35,000, and a further 30,000 people were on evacuation alert. Although Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma said it was 30,000 ordered to evacuate, with a further 36,000 on evacuation alert.
The province has restricted non-essential travel to fire-affected areas to ensure accommodation is available for evacuees and emergency personnel. Mr. Eby said Solicitor General Mike Farnworth has authorized emergency provisions to allow municipal RCMP resources to be deployed to evacuated areas and secure empty properties.
In Kelowna, helicopters continued bucketing out-of-control fires on both sides of Lake Okanagan all day on Friday, but by Saturday morning, it was clear that the losses were profound.
Heading west out of Kelowna, across the Bill Bennett Bridge that links the city with West Kelowna and the Westbank First Nation, several homes in the hillside along the lake were still burning.
To help with the firefighting efforts, the West Kelowna City issued stringent new water restrictions Saturday, banning all outdoor water use, and urging agricultural users in the area to reduce consumption where they can.
“We need to conserve what little water remains in reservoirs for firefighting purposes,” said Chief Brolund. “Please reduce your consumption.”
Firefighting efforts in the area had focused on the Rose Valley Water Treatment Plant, a $75-million project nearing completion. Mr. Brolund said the fire burned over the plant Friday afternoon, but the structure was saved.
The effort to save the plant came after a dramatic shift in winds on Friday.
For the fire’s first three days, strong winds had been pushing the flames north, northeast, downslope toward Lake Okanagan. Mid-afternoon Friday, however, the winds suddenly shifted.
The tail of the fire suddenly became its head, pushing the flames back towards the residential areas, just north of the city’s downtown, and forcing the evacuation of thousands of homes.
By Saturday afternoon, much of West Kelowna had been evacuated. Only those residents in a handful of neighbourhoods south of Highway 97 were still allowed to remain in their homes, though countless residents have left voluntarily.
In all, 10,700 homes in the region have been evacuated, and another 9,500 homes remain under evacuation alert.
Lianna Crighton and her husband were evacuated from their Shannon Lake neighbourhood on Friday after the winds shifted. They spoke to The Globe and Mail while out looking for a place to safely park their meticulously restored classic cars: a ‘62 Lincoln Continental and a ‘71 Cutlass Olds.
“I’m really scared,” said Ms. Chrighton. “I’m not gonna lie. This is the first time all week that I’ve really felt this fear. We’ve all worked so hard to be able to enjoy living in this beautiful place. I don’t know what is going to happen next.”
The airspace above the Kelowna International Airport remained closed on Saturday to clear the airspace “required by aerial firefighters.” The airport said it is working with the B.C. Wildfire Service, federal officials, and airlines to allow regular operations to resume.
There is good news, however. The strong winds that had been driving fire behaviour on Thursday and Friday seemed to be dying down on Saturday. Temperatures though will remain hot – a high of 30 was forecast for Sunday – but won’t approach the blistering heat of the last couple weeks. Air quality, however, is going from bad to worse, as the smoke settles over the region; and humidity remains critically low.
Perhaps the largest structure to burn so far was the historic Lake Okanagan Resort, a hotel and condo development that was razed overnight Thursday.
Maria Hart bought a condo in the West Kelowna resort overlooking Okanagan Lake three years ago. She planned to spend the rest of her life in this beautiful place, with its “priceless view.”
Ms. Hart fled her home on Thursday evening as the raging MacDougall Fire tore down the hillside behind her.
Before she left, she thought of a cat that had been left by a neighbor to live beneath her building, so she took the cat with her. She found a cage for it and was searching for old newspapers to line it, when a woman approached.
Upon learning about Ms. Hart’s situation, the woman gave Ms. Hart her address and offered her accommodation, as well as cat food and litter.
Ms. Hart wept. “That’s the first time I realized I was stressed. I thought I was taking everything in stride. And then she did this without even knowing my name.”
Friday morning, Ms. Hart hit the road again, with packaged cat food and a bigger cage provided by the woman, whose first name is Linda. “It really restored a lot of my faith in humanity,” Ms. Hart said.
Then she was devastated to learn that the Okanagan Lake Resort had burned to the ground.
“It’s still surreal,” she said, adding she not only lost her home, but a strong community.
Friday evening, she took a ferry to Vancouver Island, where she plans to stay with her mother for a few days.
“I don’t know the next step, really,” she said.
Emergency resources for B.C. residents
- B.C. residents who require emergency support services can register here. Emergency evacuee guidance can be found here.
- The latest news, including notices, alerts, and orders, can be found here.
- Residents can request up-to-date information here. Report smoke or fire by calling 1-800-663-5555
- Visit your local authority or First Nations' website for regional information.