Firefighters in British Columbia are battling flames in backyards of mountainside Okanagan neighbourhoods, as thousands of people in the region have been instructed to evacuate and around 10 individuals had to be rescued after ignoring orders to leave.
But with 266 wildfires burning across B.C., escaping can be complicated. As of Monday, hotels in Kelowna, a major tourist draw in the summer, were full, according to Central Okanagan Emergency Operations officials. In Merritt, which was under evacuation alert, multiple routes out of town remained closed. Some members of the Okanagan Indian Band fled to the Fraser Valley as options closer to home evaporated.
About 30 of the province’s wildfires are threatening public safety or are highly visible. The Interior has been hit particularly hard, as heat waves blanketed western North America this spring and summer. Lytton burned to the ground at the end of June after setting record high temperatures and experts predict climate change will continue to fuel extreme weather that aided this year’s wildfires.
Wildfires have spared communities in Alberta so far this year, although the weekend blaze at Dead Man’s Flats, just east of Canmore, slowed traffic on the Trans-Canada Highway and smoked out the region. Smoke, according to local media, prevented an air ambulance from landing at the site of a fatal crash in Kananaskis on Sunday. Fires in Canada and the United States have affected air quality across the west.
In B.C., the Mount Law and White Rock Lake wildfires were burning in residential communities on Okanagan Lake, officials said Monday afternoon. Jason Broland, the fire chief for West Kelowna, said 80 firefighters and 25 fire trucks were dispatched Sunday evening to protect homes in his town from the Mount Law blaze. A “small” number of buildings were lost, he said, and on Monday smaller crews continued to their work in the Glenrosa neighbourhood.
“We are actively fighting fires in the backyards of homes on a number of streets,” he told reporters. Okanagan Lake separates West Kelowna from Kelowna. Officials ordered about 1,000 people to evacuate due to the Mount Law fire, which remained out of control. One firefighter sustained “minor” injuries, Mr. Broland said.
The White Rock Lake fire has burned around 50 to 60 structures in the Killiney Beach and Ewings Landing area, which is about 40 kilometres north of West Kelowna. The fire was aggressive and the wind was challenging Sunday evening, according to Mark Healey, B.C. Wildfire Services’s incident commander.
“At one point, we could not bring our crews back to camp,” Mr. Healey said. The group, who had been working 16 to 18 hours on Sunday, were able to escape around 2 a.m. on Monday.
Officials with Central Okanagan Emergency Operations said crews on a fire rescue boat had to divert their attention away from suppressing the flames to rescue about 10 people in the Killiney Beach area who defied evacuation orders. The White Rock Lake fire had previously ripped through properties in Monte Lake, Westwold and Bouleau Lake areas between Kamloops and Vernon. Officials ordered about 3,000 people to evacuate because of the out-of-control blaze.
Byron Louis, the chief of the Okanagan Indian Band, said the fires underscore the need for a social and economic cost analysis of not being prepared for – or mitigating – global warming. Valuable timber is being lost, and tourists – tired of the smoke and constant threat of evacuation – may stop visiting the Okanagan, he noted.
“We’re not going to be able to turn global warming ... around next week,” Mr. Louis said.
Vicki Komisar, who lives in Kelowna, filled her vehicle with gasoline in case she needed to get out quickly. The smoke eased Monday, but she remained on edge.
“I kind of feel like I’m in the eye of a hurricane right now,” she said. “It is actually really clear today, even though I know that there’s a never-ending apocalypse around me.”
The entire cities of Armstrong and Merritt were on evacuation alert Monday, along with the community of Barriere, north of Kamloops, affecting about 14,000 residents in total. Residents of roughly 700 properties on the southwest side of Kamloops were also told to be ready to leave as four separate wildfires burned out of control in those regions. DriveBC, the online traveller information system, said the Coquihalla Highway between Hope and Merritt was closed until further notice after flames cut the route late Sunday.
Nearly 7,700 square kilometres have burned in B.C. since the start of the fire season, a leap of nearly 1,100 square kilometres since Friday, wildfire service spokeswoman Noelle Kekula said.
With files from The Canadian Press
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