People living in nearly 1,000 homes have either been forced to evacuate or must be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice as wildfires rip through British Columbia’s scenic Okanagan region.
A lightning storm hit the popular tourist area in B.C.’s southern Interior earlier this week, sparking multiple wildfires including one major blaze that has grown to 10 square kilometres.
“Things are quite busy right now and the situation down there is pretty volatile,” said Chief Fire Information Officer Kevin Skrepnek, speaking from Kamloops, just north of the Okanagan.
“The Okanagan is our main area of concern, given that we’ve got that cluster of fires between Kelowna and Penticton, and given how close a lot of those fires are to communities.”
The region spans from Salmon Arm in the north to Osoyoos in the south, and includes the cities of Kelowna, Penticton and Vernon. It is the province’s main wine-making region and a vacation spot for travellers from B.C., Alberta and the U.S.
The Okanagan Crush Pad winery in Summerland published an open letter thanking crews for protecting the vineyard when a blaze touched down on adjacent Crown land.
With windy conditions, the fire quickly became a threat to the 126-hectare Garnet Valley Ranch, but crews carefully executed a suppression plan, the letter said.
“They worked all night to create a two-mile long fire guard and then do the controlled back burn,” said owner Steve Lornie in the letter. “We all owe so much thanks to how hard they all worked to protect our properties.”
Some 123 fires are burning across the province, of which 41 are in the Kamloops Fire Centre, which includes the Okanagan. There are also significant wildfires raging in central and southeast B.C.
The service is redistributing crews across the province to fight the fires. It will also pull back about 200 firefighters it sent to help with wildfires in Ontario and Quebec earlier than expected, returning them to B.C. by midway through next week, said Skrepnek.
The flames have prompted the regional districts of Okanagan-Similkameen and Central Okanagan to issue evacuation orders for 81 properties, among them two campgrounds at Okanagan Lake Provincial Park and at least one winery.
Campers at the park were allowed to return temporarily on Friday to retrieve their property after a frantic evacuation on Wednesday night.
The region is still open for business and has many spots that are safe for tourists, said Erick Thompson, information officer for Okanagan-Similkameen’s emergency operation centre.
“I think the most important thing for people who are thinking of coming to the area or have plans to come here is just to do their research and find out what is affecting or may be affecting their plans,” he said.
“But there certainly still are lots of opportunities in the Okanagan.”
More than 800 homes in the Central Okanagan district are under evacuation alert, meaning residents must be ready to leave suddenly if the situation deteriorates.
Both districts have opened reception centres for evacuees.
People in the Central Okanagan recall the 2003 West Kelowna wildfires, which destroyed 240 homes, so those under evacuation alert are being proactive and getting ready to leave, said Maria Lee, public information officer for the district’s emergency operation centre.
“They’re watching very carefully the situation unfold and preparing themselves accordingly,” she said.
B.C. residents are also bracing themselves after 2017 marked the worst wildfire season on record.
The situation in the Okanagan is serious but at this time last year, tens of thousands of people had been displaced and crews were battling “massive” blazes, noted Skrepnek.
But he added it’s hard to predict the future.
“It’s only mid-way through July. We’ve got a lot of fire season ahead of us one way or the other,” he said. “There’s definitely big potential for this to turn into a significant season.”