As Simon Melanson adjusted a rooftop sprinkler he was hoping would save his West Kelowna home, the darkness was overwhelmed by an awesome sight. In a matter of minutes, the ridge behind his neighbourhood had transformed into a wall of fire.
“The glow was so huge. You could feel the heat. It was like a hurricane and a volcano had a baby – a monstrous baby,” Mr. Melanson said.
It was Thursday night. Within the past 24 hours, high winds had whipped the nearby McDougall Creek wildfire into a blaze roughly 100 times its previous size. West Kelowna and its larger neighbouring city, Kelowna, located on opposite sides of Okanagan Lake in British Columbia’s southern interior, had been plunged into the thick of an already record-breaking Canadian wildfire season.
The two cities have a combined population of roughly 190,000. By Friday morning, the fire had burned what West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund described to reporters as a “significant” number of structures in the community, including homes, though he said it was too early to give a specific number. Among the structures destroyed was the historic Lake Okanagan resort.
More than 2,500 properties were under evacuation orders because of the fire, including UBC’s Okanagan campus. Local fire officials said Friday that no one had been confirmed dead, but also warned the flames could worsen this weekend, as high winds continue to hit the drought-stricken region.
Provincial officials told an afternoon briefing that about 4,500 people were under evacuation orders across B.C., and another 23,500 were being told to prepare to flee on short notice.
Mr. Melanson, a former chief administrative officer of the nearby Westbank First Nation, was also shocked by something else he saw on Thursday night: His next-door neighbour with his feet up, watching TV in his living room.
Mr. Melanson said many on his block thought he was overreacting when he awoke at dawn Thursday to rip out all his landscaping, throw crushed stone around his house and push all his furniture away from the windows. After he, his wife, and his two daughters fled to a hotel room in downtown Kelowna that evening, his entire neighbourhood was ordered to evacuate.
Around the same time Mr. Melanson was adjusting his rooftop sprinkler on Thursday, photographer Shawn Talbot was snapping images of the fire from the Kelowna side of Okanagan Lake.
“I turned around and just 100 yards behind me was a big fire candling in the trees going up the mountainside,” Mr. Talbot recalled Friday morning.
He jumped in his truck to race around the ridge to his duplex on the other side. Minutes later, he arrived to find the police knocking on his neighbour’s door, ordering him to evacuate. Mr. Talbot fled with his dog, his hard drives and a bag of other belongings.
The lifelong Kelowna resident said he was reminded of the brutal 2003 fire that razed homes in the southern part of the city. That was the last time a wildfire jumped the lake, which stretches 135 kilometres through the heart of B.C.’s wine country.
Mr. Brolund, the West Kelowna fire chief, likened the situation to “a hundred years of firefighting in one night.” He said his firefighters had experienced a nightmare scenario.
“Those emergency responders were trapped, because they were rescuing members of the public who had chosen not to leave,” he said. “We will risk a lot to save a lot. And there were a number of risks taken to save lives and property, but there were also risks that didn’t have to be taken.”
Mr. Brolund said emergency responders also had to rescue people who had jumped into Okanagan Lake in one neighbourhood.
Time-lapse video from a webcam in Kelowna, B.C. shows large smoke clouds from a wildfire approaching the city on Aug. 17 and 18. Footage courtesy of KelownaNow.
The Globe and Mail
Bowinn Ma, B.C.’s Emergency Management Minister, said at a news conference Friday afternoon there were still 800 properties in the region on evacuation alert, meaning their owners were being advised to be ready to flee on short notice. She encouraged people living near the wildfire to reach out to family and friends to coordinate shelter. Hotel and motel rooms, she said, were filling up.
She also asked tourists to stay away from the central interior and southeast parts of B.C., if possible, to avoid putting themselves at risk, and to open up lodging for evacuees.
Nikki Sihlis and her husband, Royce, stood in a parking lot beneath their Shannon Woods neighbourhood in West Kelowna on Friday afternoon, watching the fire that had forced them out of their home of 11 years two hours earlier. Charred, fist-sized embers landed all around them. The wind, which had been blowing southwest, was shifting, pushing the fire directly toward their property.
They wore forced smiles for the benefit of their two young children, who were sitting nearby in the family’s silver SUV.
“I’m so scared,” Ms. Sihlis said, briefly turning away from her son to speak.
Before leaving home, she and Royce had watered down their home one last time. They had left a hose on their front lawn, along with several large buckets filled with water, in the hope that firefighters would spot them, should the need arise.
Behind the Sihlis family, a long line of cars, with their headlights turned on to cut through the thick grey smoke, were leaving West Kelowna. The inbound lane was all but empty, except for trucks hauling the heavy equipment needed for the firefighting effort.
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.