British Columbia

Spurred by strong winds, aggressive fire at White Rock Lake jumps highway, burns homes

An increasingly aggressive wildfire burning northwest of Vernon, B.C., has breached a major highway, and residents from the area say they've seen their homes burning.

Thousands of properties under evacuation orders or evacuation alerts

Monte Lake resident Stephanie Gamache took this picture of the White Rock Lake fire on Thursday. The fire is one of the largest of the close to 300 fires burning across B.C. (Submitted by Stephanie Gamache)

UPDATE, Aug. 6, 2021: Wildfire tears through B.C. community, destroying homes and forcing hundreds of evacuations

An increasingly aggressive wildfire burning between Kamloops and Vernon, B.C., has breached a major highway, and residents from the area say they've seen their homes burning. 

The White Rock Lake wildfire, last estimated to be 325 square kilometres, is one of the largest of nearly 300 active fires in the province. Thousands of properties are under evacuation orders or evacuation alerts.

As of 11:30 p.m. PT Thursday, evacuation orders — in which residents must leave immediately — were in place for:

  • More than 600 properties in the Westwold, Monte Lake, Falkland and the 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.
  • 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 — were in place for:

  • 2,500 properties in Kamloops's 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 Thompson-Nicola Regional District tweeted Thursday night that their website had crashed due to a high volume of users, and directed people to its Evacuation Status Dashboard instead.

Earlier in the day, Highway 97 was closed for a 62-kilometre stretch between Salmon River Road and Monte Creek to assist crews, and authorities say it will likely remain so overnight.

'My house was on fire when I left' 

Steph Gamache, a resident of Monte Lake, said the community had plans in place to leave for weeks now, ever since the fire started in mid-July, because they knew what was coming. 

Still, the fire arrived with ferocious quickness. Gamache said many properties were damaged.

"My house was on fire when I left, including every other house along the stretch. It's completely gone," said Gamache.

"Everything was ablaze."

Kelly Kennedy captured this photo of the fire from the highway. (Submitted by Kelly Kennedy)

Kelly Kennedy saw the fire coming down the hill alongside the highway and saw structures engulfed in flames.

"It just looked like dark, dark orange smoke, and we could see the flames at the top of the trees, and you could feel the heat coming right off the hill," Kennedy said. 

"It was rapid. It was coming down the hill as fast as it could."

Priscilla Kazarian, an information officer with the emergency operations centre for the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, said she could not confirm whether there had been any structure damage as a result of the fire's growth on Thursday. 

Todd Stone, MLA for Kamloops-South Thompson, tweeted that he had received many unofficial updates about widespread damage in the area.

Stay clear of highways, says B.C. Wildfire Service

The B.C. Wildfire Service emphasized that anyone under evacuation order must leave the area immediately. Hannah Swift with the service said "many" property owners remained in areas that are under evacuation orders, putting emergency personnel at risk. She didn't have an estimate of how many people stayed after being ordered to leave. 

The service urged other travellers to keep clear of roads, as evacuees were being impeded by congestion and other drivers attempting to get around the road closures.

The City of Vernon issued a release saying evacuees should not rely on commercial accommodations such as hotels and motels due to low vacancy. The city said as much as possible, evacuees should have an alternative plan to stay with family, friends or at public campsites.

The Columbia-Shuswap Regional District posted an update on Facebook Thursday evening that said, "The situation is extremely dangerous and increasingly volatile."

Strong winds a problem

Shannon Street, a fire information officer with the B.C. Wildfire Service, said crews have had to contend with strong winds all day.

"We are seeing increased winds sustained of about 20 kilometres an hour in some areas, with gusts up to 40 kilometres an hour," Street said.

"That is increasing fire behaviour in a lot of places."

The fire is burning northwest of Vernon, B.C. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

Rob Schweitzer, director of fire centre operations for the B.C. Wildfire Service, said the government body has committed 125 structural protection personnel from 25 fire departments across B.C. to protect homes in the area, as more than 130 firefighters and 13 helicopters work to suppress the fire.

With files from Yvette Brend, Akshay Kulkarni, The Canadian Press, Katie Nicholson, Georgie Smyth