British Columbia

B.C. fires: Some Okanagan residents allowed to return home for now

Hundreds of people who were forced to flee their homes in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley because of a wildfire are being allowed to return, but officials say they should be ready to leave again at a moment's notice.

At least 100 homes remain threatened by another blaze nearly 50 kilometres south of Penticton

At a news conference Saturday, provincial officials said the situation appeared less severe than it was a day earlier, as temperatures had dropped and winds decreased. (CBC)

Hundreds of people who were forced to flee their homes because of a wildfire in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley are being allowed to return, but officials say they should be ready to leave again at a moment's notice.

"It's appearing to be safe for people — those residents — at this time to go back," said Mark Pendergraft, chair of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen.  

Oliver, B.C., — a small wine-growing town of about 5,000 people — faces the Testalinden Creek fire to its south and the Wilsons Mountain to its north. The fires have grown to 1,560 and 317 hectares, respectively. 

About 260 residents who were ordered to leave Friday because of the Wilson Mountain fire were allowed to go home Saturday. 

An evacuation order for another 100 residents, however, remains in effect due to the Testalinden Creek fire.

At a news conference Saturday, provincial officials said the situation appeared less severe than it was a day earlier, as temperatures had dropped and winds decreased.

About 260 residents ordered to leave their homes Friday because of the Wilson Mountain fire were allowed to return Saturday but others are still facing an evacuation order. (CBC)

"The fire activity out there this morning has been quite a bit milder than what we were seeing last night," said Kevin Skrepnek, chief fire information officer for the B.C. Wildfire Service, who said multiple structures in the area have been burned.

"Certainly, there's still a lot of work to do out there. The fire at this point is zero per cent contained, but we're not seeing that incredibly aggressive wind event that came through the area yesterday," he added.

Calm following 'horrific' night

Oliver Mayor Ron Hovanes said approximately 300 people registered at an emergency reception centre in town Friday night. Upwards of 40 evacuees slept there, while others spent the night in their vehicles or bunked with friends and family.

He described the mood Saturday morning as "pretty calm" following a fitful night.

"Last night, it was pretty horrific when you're at the foot of the hill ... and watching flames licking at the backs of houses. It was pretty tense," Hovanes said. "And the smoke was thick. You could hardly breathe."

Both fires continue to smoulder Saturday with small pockets of flames visible at times on the hillsides. The B.C. Wildfire Service has three helicopters and 60 crew members on the scene, while local crews are still providing assistance.

Two wildfires started on Friday and have quickly spread 2:16

Residents forced to flee in minutes

Local resident Jack Versenberger said the fire was only about 60 metres away from his home when he left Friday night. 

"I was starting to feel the heat off of it and it was getting down [the mountain] pretty good," he said. At around 11 p.m. PT, he was told he had to leave. 

"Everything just went into the truck and away we went," he said. "They just said 'out.'"

Versenberger spent the night at his daughter's home. He said he didn't get much sleep that night.

Jenica Ravlic, also an Oliver resident, spent the night at the evacuation centre with her husband after they also fled the area Friday. 

"We could smell the smoke and it was getting difficult to breathe," she said. "I could feel it burn down my throat. That's when I knew we would have to go." 

Saved by trees

Flames came within about 50 metres of Helena Souto's house, which was saved by the lush orchard between it and the fire zone.

"We had the sprinkler running overnight; that's maybe why it didn't get too close to the house," she told the Penticton Herald on Saturday after returning to survey the damage.

"I didn't expect to see the house this morning."

Dozens of fruit trees that served as the makeshift fire guard were scorched and she expects they'll have to be replanted.

"But that's Mother Nature," Souto said. "You can't stress out about it."

Her neighbour, Spud Torrao, spent the night on top of his home, which was also saved by fruit trees.

"I've lived through burn-outs. I lived in Lillooet and twice I got evacuated, and I said I'm going to stay until the last second until the corner of the house gets going, so I laid up there and I had the water hose," he said while repairing a sign damaged by heavy winds.

"I've got a metal roof and said I'll tough it out."

Wine producers also threatened

The region is one of Canada's biggest wine producers, and some local wineries also had a close call.

Church and State winery thought it had lost its wine cellar, but on Saturday morning discovered it narrowly escaped the fires.

Busy, expensive fire season

As of Saturday afternoon, there were 219 active wildfires across the province, according to the B.C. Wildfire Service.

Lightning caused most of the 76 new wildfires that began on Friday alone. 

The province has spent just under $200 million fighting the fires, which have burned nearly 300,000 hectares of land.

​The wildfire service said 1,400 firefighters are currently battling blazes across the province.

With files from The Canadian Press

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