Four relentless days of firefighting and some co-operative weather is offering some cautious hope that the ferocious blaze that has consumed neighbourhoods in B.C.’s Kelowna area and forced tens of thousands of people out of their homes has been beaten back.
Fire officials said Sunday it is now possible to begin talking about recovery, though evacuation orders in the city of West Kelowna and the nearby Westbank First Nation have not been lifted. Some evacuation orders, however, were downgraded to alerts in the larger neighbouring city of Kelowna on Sunday afternoon, including in the University of British Columbia Okanagan district.
“We’re now four days in. It feels like months but things are looking better,” said West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund during a news conference.
“We are finally feeling like we’re moving forward rather than we’re moving backward. In saying that, make no mistake there will be difficulties ahead.”
He said there will be up to 50 people from Canada Task Force 1 assisting on the ground, including members of the Vancouver fire rescue and police services, engineers, paramedics and technical experts. The “powerhouse” team is self-sufficient, providing its only base of operations, accommodations and equipment, so it won’t impact existing operations, Chief Brolund said.
The team will determine how many properties have been lost or damaged. That tally is not yet known, with officials saying only that the destruction has been “significant.” Still, residents of Kelowna, West Kelowna and the Westbank First Nation can see the damage all around them. The historic Lake Okanagan Resort is gone, and 10,000 residents in the Kelowna area have been ordered out.
To flee to safety, residents and visitors – who have been urged to clear out – have had to drive through fire-ravaged stretches of highway. The smoke is chokingly thick throughout the region. By Sunday, the McDougall Creek wildfire, as it is officially known, was 100 times its previous size earlier this week, covering some 11,000 hectares.
Over the weekend, the provincial government ordered people off the roads for anything other than non-essential travel. The airspace above the Kelowna International Airport was closed to support aerial firefighters, and on Sunday afternoon, the airport said on social media that flights wouldn’t operate unless they are green-lighted by Transport Canada “on a case-by-case basis.”
Jerrad Schroeder, a spokesperson with the B.C. Wildfire Service, said about 500 firefighters are attacking the blaze, with additional resources “pouring in” for the long battle still ahead.
Mr. Brolund said recovery efforts will involve Vancouver’s heavy urban search-and-rescue team that arrived in Kelowna earlier in the day and will help take inventory of wildfire destruction in affected areas.
While the blaze burning through Kelowna’s urban areas has received much media attention, wildfires have also left those in rural regions struggling to find shelter for their animals, and some have had to consider whether to heed the strongly-worded orders for them to leave.
Neighbours James Krebber and Roy Allgaier decided not to.
The Adams Lake wildfire burned all around them, mowing through most of the Allgaier family’s 160 acres. But the farmhouse that Roy Allgaier’s father, Gene Allgaier, built with his own two hands 40 years ago – a surprise for the latter’s wife, Inge, who was visiting family in Germany – was untouched. So far, anyway.
“We’re going to fight again tonight,” Roy Allgaier says. “We’re not done yet.”
Indeed, the farm sits astride the fire line. All day long on Sunday, the Allgaiers have been putting out spot fires whenever the winds kick up new flames. Their fields are still smouldering. The cracking of dead trees can be heard, as they split and fall in the forest.
“We did the best we could,” Mr. Krebber tells Roy Allgaier’s daughter, Claire, who grabs him in a bear hug.
“We don’t have fire insurance,” she says. “If it wasn’t for James and my dad, we wouldn’t have a house. We would have nothing. All this would be ash – like everything else around here.”
The farmhouse, with its two-story turret made of rocks and a pond full of trout who jump to surface whenever Claire Allgaier throws a handful of food for them, looks like an oasis surrounded by darkened seas.
“We love this place,” Ms. Allgaier says. “My Opa made it what it is.”
The Adams Lake fire began burning in mid-July, Mr. Krebber says a half-hour later, from behind the wheel of his ATV. Josie, his black lab with a busted hip, is sitting in his lap.
“The problem is, there aren’t enough people living here to warrant putting out the fire,” he says.
He passes two cowboys on horses. They are out hunting for cattle, who spend the summers grazing in the hills, he explains: “They need to get them down before they burn.”
Mr. Krebber, who owns a nearby wedding venue called Little Creek Ranch, is towing a generator and a crate of water, and stops suddenly to put out a spot fire burning beside the road. The radiant heat coming off the flames is broiling. Nearby, a dozen wildland firefighters carrying Pulaski axes and shovels work the fire.
“I’m so sick of fire right now,” Mr. Krebber says. For lunch, he grabbed an apple off a tree. He had a beer to cool his throat 20 minutes earlier. He lungs, he says, are messed up. His nerves are even worse off.
“The scariest part is the roar,” he says. “It sounds like a jet engine. You could hear it coming down the hill. It sounded angry. It was scary as hell. I got PTSD looking at the trees right now.”
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.