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Wildfire evacuees wait for word on damage as wind threatens to rekindle flames

Peachland Fire

Jeff Bassett/THE CANADIAN PRESS A wild fire burns out of control near Peachland, B.C. on Sunday. Authorities have ordered the evacuation of about a thousand people from the path of a wildfire raging near Peachland, B.C.

PEACHLAND, B.C.—One millimetre of rain and calmer winds overnight brought a small amount of relief to fire crews and about 1,500 residents who were quickly evacuated from their homes Sunday in the face of a raging wildfire in Peachland, B.C.

Firecrews worked frantically overnight to contain the flames and helicopters were in the air early Monday dumping water on hot spots, said fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek.

Clouds of thick, white smoke drifted over the forested mountainside to the west of the town and the wind had picked up again by mid morning.

Skrepnek said it was unclear if the fire grew overnight, so it’s believed the fire remains at about two square kilometres.

Flames were first spotted Sunday at about 3 p.m. and spread so quickly that residents were given little time to get out of their homes.

Skrepnek couldn’t say how many homes might have been damaged by the fire.

Keith Fielding, the mayor of the community of around 5,200 located about 380 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, said he heard there were four homes caught by the flames.

“I don’t know to what extent the damage is,” he said. “I’m very concerned about that.”

Fielding was awarding prizes at a fall fair when he learned his own street was being evacuated. He rushed home to help his wife and disabled adult daughter flee their home.

“Obviously it’s a very worrying time for everybody and (Monday) we’re hoping to have good news about the containment.”

Some 150 firefighters worked throughout the night, extinguishing spot fires and monitoring the blaze’s progress.

Like the mayor, thousands of people grabbed their most cherished possessions and fled on a few moments notice.

RCMP officers first spotted the blaze while conducting a speed patrol on the highway. Within a half hour, the first evacuation order was issued as winds of up to 40 kilometres an hour stoked the flames.

By the time darkness fell, about 1,500 people had been ordered to evacuate and about 430 more were preparing to leave as an evacuation alert was extended into the downtown of the community on the west side of Okanagan Lake.

“It was kind of a chaotic scene, people driving down the streets with their trucks full of their belongings,” said Natasha Chudyk, who was driving from Summerland to Vancouver.

Ashes fell from the sky like snow as helicopters and water bombers picked up water from the lake to try and douse the flames. Chudyk said she could taste the smoke in her mouth, and hours later, the acrid smell still permeated her truck.

It was a restless night for Ron Polak, 50, who lives just a few kilometres from where residents have been evacuated.

“I’m trying to find out if it’s coming our way, because the wind’s picking up,” he said Monday morning.

“From my house, through the trees, you can see a lot of smoke. Last night at about 1 o’clock you could see the glow of the flames throughout the trees. “It was a pretty late night for us.”

Courtenay Waslyw, 32, and her husband were forced to flee the home they moved into only two weeks before.

“I had heard a report about an hour after we were evacuated that there was a house about a block away from ours that went up in flames,” said Waslyw.

“It’s a very, very condensed area and I thought, ‘Oh my God’ because there’s tons of houses up there and lots of properties with horses. And if it goes up, it’s going. There would be no way to stop it.”

It started off as a beautiful summer day, with a bright blue sky, said Dave Preston, editor of the Peachland News.

“The wind did pick up. It was blustering quite well, then just a few minutes after three, there was this enormous column of smoke that rose above the mountainside and just within minutes the wind picked up horrendously and the fire just grew and grew right before our eyes,” Preston said as night fell and the helicopters trying to fight the blaze could no longer see well enough to fly.

“I’m looking up toward the Ponderosa neighbourhood and there’s a very eerie orange glow just beyond the hillside.”

Police and emergency vehicles were gathering in the neighbourhood preparing to expand the evacuation order. The nearest home being abandoned was only about 500 metres from the home Preston shares with his wife and son.

RCMP Const. Steve Holmes said a crew was quickly assembled to fight the flames. Several helicopters, at least one water bomber and a ground crew were on the scene.

“We’re dealing with a pretty unpredictable fire,” Holmes said.

“Our biggest issue has been with Mother Nature, which is the high winds we’ve been experiencing in the area, and the unpredictability,” Holmes said.

“They’ve been changing direction and they’ve been driving a lot of smoke, a lot of flames down towards Highway 97 as well as smoke up onto the 97 Connector.”

Public information officer Bruce Smith, with the emergency operations centre, said darkness made it too difficult to estimate the immediate damage.

“It is seriously uncomforting for the people who have been forced out of their homes,” he said. “Generally I think people are taking it in stride. We’ve had this occur in the past with other fires and evacuations and generally we think people are better prepared now than 10 or 15 years ago because of the experiences we’ve had.

Back then people really didn’t understand then about preparedness.”

The centre had set up a website at www.cordemergency.cafor residents to get updates.

An emergency operations centre was set up in nearby Kelowna, and evacuees were directed to two emergency registration centres — one at the arena in Summerland and another at the Westbank Lions Club.

The mountainous region surrounding Okanagan Lake is home to award winning wineries. But the arid conditions that allow vineyards to prosper also pose a fire hazard in dry summers. Nine years ago in September, a massive fire in and around Kelowna forced the evacuation of more than 27,000 and burned down 239 homes.

With files from Dene Moore and Tamsyn Burgmann

thestar.com – News

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