British Columbia Wildfire Forces Evacuation of 26,000

KELOWNA, British Columbia, Canada, August 25, 2003 (ENS) - A fire started by lightning in a provincial park nine days ago has forced the evacuation of 26,000 people from their homes in the city of Kelowna in interior British Columbia. The Okanagan Mountain Park Fire swept through the south end of the city on Friday night, consuming at least 244 homes.

Kelowna emergency officials believe it to be the largest evacuation in the shortest period of time in Canada’s history. Residents took shelter in schools and recreation centers where they were supplied with food and water by the Canadian Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other aid agencies.

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Okanagan Mountain Park Fire (Photo by Steve Devries courtesy Provincial Emergency Program)
This forest fire with its extremely dry fuel sources continues to challenge experts, fire officials said Saturday. "It’s suggested only one fire like this would happen every 100 years. Forest fire fighting and emergency preparedness personnel say they’ve never experienced such an extraordinary fire with such severe implications," said the emergency operations center.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien toured Kelowna Sunday to see the devastation of the Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire for himself. Praising the courage of the people of Kelowna, Chretien said the federal government would find the money to do whatever is possible. Programs are in place, and he has conferred with B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell to see what can be done once the fire is out.

Cooler temperatures and calm winds overnight helped firefighters clean up hot spots and push the fire back on Sunday. Assisted by air tankers and 13 helicopters, exhausted but hopeful firefighters are reporting that the wind is now pushing the fire back on itself. This is aiding their efforts to control the fire’s encroachment on the city limits. Fire guards are being constructed to allow a back burn on the east side of the fire.

Firefighter Paul Monchamp told local reporters, “The fire creates its own swirling currents. When there is a firestorm, even the curve of a road can have a bearing. Firestorms are complex.”

Craig Howaniec, Home Depot’s general manager in the nearby city of Kamloops, has been volunteering for the past two days, despite having a new baby only a day before the fire swept across Kelowna. “My wife is very supportive,” says Howaniec. “This was a large disaster affecting thousands of people in our community. Many lost everything - their homes, their belongings and for some, their livelihoods.”

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A house destroyed by the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire (Photo courtesy Provincial Emergency Program)
Using a combination of ground surveillance, going street to street, and aerial photography, Kelowna City staffers are gathering data to ensure they have correct information about which homes have not been affected by the fire, and which homes have been lost. The street to street checking depends on whether it is safe to go into an area because crews are still dealing with an active fire.

Scheduled commercial flights are operating normally at Kelowna International Airport, but no other aircraft movements are permitted without prior approval of the airport manager to ensure the airspace is kept clear for the aerial fire fighting operation.

Premier Campbell offered "heartfelt sympathy to all who have lost their homes and property in the face of the raging fires," on behalf of all B.C. citizens. He called the efforts of firefighters, volunteer service agencies, emergency personnel "truly heroic."

"Government will do what it must to provide support and care for those whose homes, treasures and businesses have been affected by these fires. We will continue to work with federal, regional and local governments to help restore the quality of life for all who have lost their homes and possessions," Campbell said.

There are currently 900 fires burning in the province. Since the beginning of April, there have been more than 2,100 fires, which have consumed over 132,000 hectares.

A state of emergency was declared for the entire province on August 14, and there are currently 3,500 fire fighters employed on wildfires throughout the province.

People are being evacuated from their homes to escape fires threatening other southeastern British Columbia towns. Evacuation orders are in effect for parts of Nakusp, Cranbrook, and Grand Forks.

The Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection issued a backcountry travel advisory Thursday for the southern portion of the province including Vancouver Island. The advisory urges people to exercise extreme caution and avoid all nonessential backcountry travel. Fires are banned in southern provincial parks where even the smallest spark could start a new fire.

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Crew of firefighters watches a helicopter attempt to extinguish the Okanagan Mountain Park fire near Kelowna. (Photo by Gary Sanguin courtesy Provincial Emergency Program)
To date, fires have forced the complete closures of 12 provincial parks. These include: Adams Lake, Bedard Aspen, Bonaparte, Cornwall Hills, Harry Lake Aspen, High Lakes Basin, Myra- Bellevue, Niskonlith Lake, Nunsti, Oregon Jack and Tsintsunko Lakes, Moyie Lake and Okanagan Mountain.

Partial closures are in effect in many parks including Kalamalka Lake Park, Cypress Bowl and Mount Seymour provincial parks.

As forests and grasslands remain tinder dry through much of the province, BC Parks is asking people to avoid venturing into the unsupervised portions of backcountry areas to reduce the risk of being trapped by a fire or accidentally starting a fire.

B.C. Solicitor General Rich Coleman said, “The situation in our province this summer goes beyond anything we have experienced in the past. It is essential that the Fire Commissioner has as much flexibility as possible in deploying resources to protect B.C. communities, so today we have established a provincial fire department under the Emergency Program Act.”

The Office of the Fire Commissioner (OFC) will now be able to expand his office's capacity to protect communities threatened by fire by drawing on local government resources from any jurisdiction within B.C. to provide equipment and crews, supplementing local fire crews as needed.

“We are taking every step possible to protect people and their homes,” said Coleman. “The OFC and Ministry of Forests Protection Branch have identified the central and southeast regions as being at the greatest risk of interface fires, so we have put two new regional fire departments into place to focus more resources into these areas.”

The two new fire departments are based in the interior cities of Cranbrook and Kamloops.

“This is the first jurisdiction in North America to set up such a coordinated fire fighting effort to meet emergency response needs,” said B.C. Fire Commissioner Rick Dumala. “The situation warrants an innovative approach to how we protect people and their homes.”