B.C. fire crews risked their lives to help residents who ignored evacuation orders: minister
Residents implored to leave when ordered, after some firefighters redirected to help evacuations
UPDATE, 10 p.m. PT: An evacuation order for nearly 1,000 properties in the Central Okanagan was issued on Friday evening. Residents are expected to leave immediately. Nearly 10,000 residents in the City of Armstrong and the Township of Spallumcheen are also on evacuation alert, with city officials telling residents to be prepared to leave if necessary.
Another British Columbia community has been devastated by a raging wildfire, and more could be at risk from a blaze between Kamloops and Vernon in the province's southern Interior.
As of Friday morning, the White Rock Lake wildfire is an estimated 450 square kilometres in size, and the B.C. Wildfire Service says it is classified as out of control.
An update from B.C. Wildfires on Friday evening said southwesterly winds, gusting upwards of 40 km/h, were challenging suppression efforts. The service said the fire was growing along its eastern perimeter.
B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said on Friday that the fire west of Okanagan Lake was now the province's highest priority. It ripped through the community of Monte Lake overnight.
"With the extreme fire danger and behaviour we are now facing, despite all efforts, decisions may need to be made to move crews out of harm's way," he said.
Ken Gillis, chair of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, said he has been advised that damage is extensive in Monte Lake and through the nearby Paxton Valley.
"In all likelihood, the majority of the community has been wiped out by this fire," Gillis told CBC Daybreak Kamloops host Shelley Joyce.
He said the general store, a campground and a number of residences have been destroyed.
Gillis said he expects a more thorough assessment will be done later Friday.
Evacuation orders for the White Rock Lake wildfire
Late Thursday, when the White Rock Lake wildfire was 325 square kilometres in size, it jumped Highway 97, about 40 kilometres southeast of Kamloops.
Thousands of people were ordered to either evacuate their properties or prepare to evacuate as the wildfire spread.
Farnworth said some firefighters had to "put their lives on the line" Thursday night to evacuate people in the area who chose to ignore these orders.
"While our crews were able to get the residents to safety, these brave firefighters very nearly paid with their lives," he said. "By any measure, this is completely unacceptable."
The minister said the province has the ability to fine residents $10,000 if they refuse to evacuate, but had not done so in the past.
He implored residents under evacuation alerts to be prepared to leave at a moment's notice.
As of 4 p.m. PT Friday, evacuation orders — in which residents must leave immediately — were in place for:
- Over 600 properties in the Westwold, Monte Lake, Falkland and Cedar Hill areas.
- 373 properties in the vicinity of Pritchard.
- 544 properties under the jurisdiction of the Central Okanagan Regional District, including all properties in Westshore Estates.
- 608 properties from the south of Westshore Estates along Westside Road from Killiney Beach, including Ewings Landing.
- Properties in the Six Mile-Nashwito area and Newport area for the Okanagan Indian Band.
Evacuation alerts — in which residents must be ready to leave at a moment's notice — have been issued for:
- 2,500 properties in Kamloops' Campbell Creek, Barnhartvale and Dallas neighbourhoods, southeast of the city's downtown core.
- 117 properties near Highway 1 and the Kamloops city limits.
- 2,400 properties in the Central Okanagan Regional District, between Westshore Estates and Bear Forest Service Road.
- The village of Chase, B.C., and 83 homes southwest of the village under the jurisdiction of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District.
- The Canadian Lake View Estates, Adventure Bay, Tronson Road, Rise, Turtle Mountain and Blue Jay communities in Vernon, B.C.
Westwold resident Shilea Fraser said the blaze was 500 yards from her house when she left on Thursday with her husband and five-year-old son Ryder. She later received confirmation that her house and her parents' house had burned down.
Fraser tried to evacuate all of her farm animals, including horses, dogs, and ducks, but said she had to let some cats and chickens go while fleeing.
"[Ryder] cried this morning just because everything is so shocking, and I'm a mess. So he's feeding off of it," she said.
"I basically told him that our home isn't there anymore. So we're okay because we have each other ... we'll just start over again."
As other ranchers in the area evacuated, Greg Sokliuk said he and his partner had to tie livestock to their vehicles and drive slowly to get them to walk out, because there was no time to get trailers loaded up. Others had to cut fences and let animals go free to escape the fire.
"We could watch the clouds and the smoke plume basically move within hours, it doubled its length towards the lake," he said.
Sokliuk said he's been preparing to evacuate since mid-July. The heat wave and drought in southern B.C., in his experience, meant this summer was going to be a bad fire season.
"At this point we don't feel safe anywhere."
Highway 97 has been closed between Salmon River Road and Monte Creek and Westside Road is also closed in both directions between Pinecrest Road and Six Mile Creek Road.
Forecast not favourable
A chance of showers in the area is forecast through the weekend, along with slightly cooler temperatures. However, that comes with more wind, which could create more problems for firefighters.
An official with the B.C. Wildfire Service has confirmed further growth of the blaze is expected and a statement from the service says winds gusting up to 40 km/h are expected through the day.
More than 300 fires burning in B.C.
The July Mountain wildfire grew overnight and jumped the Coquihalla highway, which connects the Lower Mainland to the Interior, on Thursday.
It originated on the south side of the road, about 45 kilometres southwest of Merritt, and has now spread to the east side, according to the B.C. Wildfire Service. It is an estimated 20 square kilometres in size.
Officials say the fire is visible from the highway, and a travel advisory is in effect for 21.6 kilometres of road between exits 228 and 250. The road remains open, but visibility is low due to smoke and stopping is not allowed in that area.
Twenty-five properties in the area have been on evacuation order since July 20. Late on Friday, an additional 98 properties were added to the evacuation order.
There are currently 303 wildfires burning in B.C., the largest of which is the Sparks Lake wildfire north of Kamloops. That fire currently covers 685 square kilometres.
More than 1,400 wildfires have been sparked since April 1 in B.C., burning about 5,830 square kilometres of land.
Over half of this year's fires are suspected to have been caused by lightning.
The provincial government says there are 3,650 personnel involved in wildfire fighting efforts provincewide, including 610 firefighters from out of province.
About 214 helicopters and planes are being used to support ground crews.
Anyone placed under an evacuation order should leave the area immediately.
Evacuation centres have been set up throughout the province to assist anyone evacuating from a community under threat from a wildfire. To find the centre closest to you, visit the Emergency Management B.C. website.
Evacuees are encouraged to register with Emergency Support Services online, whether or not they access services at an evacuation centre.
With files from Yvette Brend, Johanna Wagstaffe, and Daybreak Kamloops