British Columbia

B.C. fires: Oliver firefighters in southern Interior grounded by drone

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark travelled to the province's southern Interior today to visit residents who had to flee their homes because of wildfires burning throughout the region.

RCMP searching for drone that grounded crews for several hours on Sunday afternoon

Helicopters fighting a wildfire near Oliver, B.C., were grounded because a drone was flying in the area. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

A drone flying near one of many wildfires in British Columbia's southern Interior Sunday has grounded eight helicopters and six skimmers that are trying to battle the blaze.

"It's an active fire and we need all our tools to effectively fight it," said Fire Information Officer Noelle Kekula.

"I understand people's curiosity but you are impacting our fire operations."

Kekula said crews were grounded as soon as the drone was spotted early in the afternoon at the Testalinden Creek fire near Oliver. RCMP officers are looking for it and its operator. 

This is at least the second instance this year where a drone has interfered with firefighting efforts.

Premier travels to fire-stricken region

Earlier Sunday afternoon, B.C. Premier Christy Clark travelled to the province's southern Interior to visit residents who had to flee their homes because of wildfires burning throughout the region. 

Rock Creek fire devastation

8 years ago
Duration 2:24
Good chance B.C. fire was started by an errant cigarette, and Premier Christy Clark is angry

Residents who were told to leave because of the Rock Creek fire, now estimated at 37 square kilometres, found out on Sunday morning that 29 homes and 11 other structures were damaged or lost. 

The blaze in Rock Creek began by a highway junction and is believed to be human-caused. Clark said if evidence shows an individual is responsible, that person will face consequences.

"If you are found to have been throwing a cigarette butt out of your car, perhaps one of the penalties available should be that we should be able to take away the use of your car for a period of time," she said.

The premier was in Oliver and Midway, B.C., on Sunday afternoon to commend evacuees for their courage and mutual support.

"Heroes in ordinary garb, just average citizens in this tiny town of Midway, who have come together and are just giving everything they can to support folks who need their help," said Clark. "It's really an incredible example of the spirit of our province."

Over 600 evacuees in the area around the Rock Creek wildfire have registered at a nearby reception centre after being told to leave on Thursday night.

Tourists who were camping at the nearby Kettle River recreation area were allowed to return to the campsite on Sunday afternoon to find out what, if anything, was left of their belongings.

Kerstin Klenheimer and her husband deserted their house when the Rock Creek fire broke out Thursday evening. On Sunday she stood next to a charred piece of property on the shoulder of a nearby highway and stared in the distance at the fire burning near her house.

"It was like a tornado coming — a fire tornado coming up the valley," she said, recalling the moments before their hasty departure. "There was no time. You just have to run."

Strong winds fan the flames

The biggest challenge to fighting the several aggressive blazes that have flared up across the region has been the strong and gusty winds, said Kevin Skrepnek of the B.C. Wildfire Service.

"When you see [that] the growth on these fires largely happened in their initial stages, it speaks to the fact that this truly was a wind event that came through that area and really fanned these fires and caused them to grow so quickly," he said.

The wildfire service hasn't called for any significant wind on Sunday, said Alan Stanley of the Kootenay Boundary Regional District. But that situation could change quickly, he warned.

"You can't guarantee anything with a wildfire," he said. "It is bold, all-caps unpredictable with several exclamation marks."

Firefighter Andrew Koteles battles flames from a wildfire near Oliver, B.C., on Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Hundreds across province forced to flee

Some 220 fires continue to burn across B.C. on Sunday, out of a total of more than 1,600 that have sparked since April 1. More than 900 people remain in areas under evacuation order across the province, including 240 in the Rock Creek area.

Another two wildfires in the heart of B.C.'s wine country continued to smoulder on Sunday, with scores of residents still forced from their homes.

Two fires raged near the picturesque tourist town of Oliver. Though residents affected by the three-square-kilometre Wilsons Mountain fire were allowed home Saturday, about 110 people living near the 15-square-kilometre Testalinden Creek fire remained under evacuation order.

'This is going to be bad'

Spud Torrao watched as flames engulfed the hillside directly next to his three-acre hobby farm on Sunday. Oliver Fire Department crews attacked the blaze with a hose, as a massive water bomber doused the fire.

He said he was barbecuing on Friday evening when the Testalinden Creek fire first broke out on the mountain.

"I said, 'Oh god, fire.' The wind was just hollering. I said, 'Oh boy, this is going to be bad. This is going to be bad."'

He grabbed his dogs and cats and loaded them into his truck, where they slept while it was parked on the road. Torrao spent the night sleeping on his roof, worried that debris would start falling from the mountainside.

Torrao said smoke continued to pour off the hill on Saturday and flames suddenly broke out again Sunday morning after a change in direction.

With files from Tina Lovgreen, Kirk Williams and Canadian Press