A more complete picture of the destruction and damage wrought by the wildfire that ripped through British Columbia’s West Kelowna area began coming into focus on Tuesday, with early estimates suggesting the blaze destroyed fewer than 90 structures but did not result in any deaths.
West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund said the damage toll so far includes fewer than 70 structures in West Kelowna and less than 20 on Westbank First Nation lands.
Kelowna Fire Department Chief Travis Whiting said the wildfire destroyed three homes and two outbuildings on four properties in the Okanagan city, while Lake Country Fire Chief Darren Lee said three homes have been lost in his community and an undetermined number of outbuildings.
“I really am beginning to feel like we’re beginning to turn the corner on this fire, and a major measure of that was the rescinding of some evacuation orders that were rescinded to alerts,” Brolund said.
British Columbia’s minister of emergency management says an order restricting travel to many communities in the southern Interior due to wildfires will be lifted at midnight.
Bowinn Ma says non-essential travel to West Kelowna continues to be prohibited and people are being urged to stay away from the Lake Country and Shuswap areas.
The Kelowna area was still covered in a haze of thick smoke on Tuesday, preventing residents from getting a clearer image of the fire’s wrath, but Brolund said clear skies are in the weather forecast.
“The smoke is going to lift today,” he said. “The mountains around our community are going to look different. We haven’t seen them since the fire and it might be pretty dramatic to start to see what we’ve lost out there.”
The news was less encouraging elsewhere. Heavy smoke from a wildfire in the Shuswap Lake region east of Kamloops was preventing firefighters from mounting an aerial assault on the blaze that destroyed an undetermined number of properties in Scotch Creek and Celista and other North Shuswap areas.
Derek Sutherland, an emergency operations centre team leader with the Columbia Shuswap Regional District, said the Bush Creek East wildfire has forced the evacuation of 11,000 people from the area and destroyed properties, including the fire hall at Scotch Creek.
“It is our priority to get people back to their homes as soon as we possibly can,” he said during a virtual update.
Sutherland confirmed some area residents have stayed home to protect their properties rather than follow evacuation orders.
“We have had issues with people choosing to stay and defend in the area,” he said. “We would ask all people, please evacuate when there is an evacuation order in place.”
Sutherland also asked people not to remove firefighting equipment, including sprinklers and water pumps, placed in the area by BC Wildfire Service crews.
Premier David Eby said Monday “tampering” with firefighting equipment hampers firefighters in their potentially life-saving work.
The premier spent Tuesday in the southern Interior touring the wildfire zones with two of his cabinet ministers and Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s minister of emergency preparedness.
Eby said the goal of the visit was to reassure people the B.C. government will be there to help them rebuild once the crisis has passed, but also to get information from the front line about what communities need.
He stopped Tuesday at an evacuation centre in Kamloops at the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation, where he spoke with those who have fled the wildfires.
“I have seen first hand the stress people are under, the anxiety people are feeling,” Eby said. “A gentleman shared with me images of how close his home came to burning down in the Scotch Creek area.”
He said he heard another account of one man forced to hide under a bridge in the Shuswap Lake area and wait to be rescued by a passing boat.
Brolund said the heavy urban disaster Canada Task Force 1 team completed a specialized search of wildfire-stricken areas in West Kelowna and found no signs that anyone died.
He said he was not aware of any outstanding missing persons, a development he described as “very encouraging news.”
Brolund said firefighters have also been heartened by the praise of local residents who have been viewing their firefighting efforts through security cameras installed at their front doors.
“Often you’ve talked back to us through your doorbell cams and told us that we’re doing a good job,” he said.
West Kelowna resident Marnie Endersby said she has taken to social media hoping to find and thank the firefighter she saw on her security camera fighting to save her family’s home.
There are more than 27,000 people under evacuation orders across the province and more than 35,000 on evacuation alert due to several blazes, including the 110-square-kilometre McDougall Creek wildfire affecting West Kelowna, Kelowna and Lake Country.
The BC Wildfire Service said 100 firefighters from Mexico are expected to arrive in the province on Tuesday, and another 200 from South Africa by the end of the week.
Brad Litke with the BC Wildfire Service said the McDougall Creek wildfire in West Kelowna is currently estimated at 120 square kilometres.
He said the fire in the City of Kelowna is estimated at nearly eight square kilometres and the one burning in the District of Lake Country is nearly four square kilometres.
Litke said the area is expecting light winds Tuesday, along with a possible thunderstorm and light rain.
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.