British Columbia

'Let the firefighters do their job' says B.C. official after evacuees stay behind, putting lives at risk

Thousands of properties remain under evacuation order Monday after "exceptional" high winds fuelled dozens of wildfires across B.C., sending flames barrelling toward several communities.

10 people had to be rescued from White Rock Lake fire on Sunday

A helicopter carrying a water bucket flies past a pyrocumulus cloud, also known as a fire cloud, produced by the Lytton Creek wildfire burning in the mountains above Lytton, B.C., on August 15, 2021. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Thousands of properties remain under evacuation order Monday after high winds fanned dozens of wildfires across B.C., pushing flames toward several communities.

Some evacuees are staying behind to protect their properties, an action officials are condemning after 10 people had to be rescued from the White Rock Lake fire Sunday night. 

Officials with the Central Okanagan Emergency Operations Centre said firefighters had to be pulled away from controlling the blaze and put in more danger in order to save people who deliberately ignored evacuation orders.

"I think that [situation] speaks for itself. We really encourage people to gather your things and vacate the area to let the firefighters do their job. It's all about protecting lives," said the operation centres director, Brian Reardon.

The fire stretches for nearly 650 square kilometres between Kamloops and Vernon in the southern Interior and has put more than 3,000 people under evacuation orders as of Monday afternoon. 

Reardon confirmed Monday the White Rock Lake fire has "significantly damaged" up to 60 buildings in the Killiney Beach area, north of Kelowna on the edge of Okanagan Lake.

WATCH | Thousands of B.C. properties under evacuation orders:

Wildfires snake through more of Okanagan

2 years ago
Duration 2:33
More communities were put under evacuation alerts in the Okanagan as smoke blanketed the region, hampering firefighters’ efforts and wildfires blocked some people’s escape routes.

Many of the structures destroyed were homes and vacation properties, as well as some rural buildings.

Wayne Carson, the regional director for the Central Okanagan and former firefighter, says most of the people staying behind have no idea what they're doing and that it's scary to witness.

"When this fire came to Killiney Beach last night, it was rank six. You're not going to survive the rank six fire," he told CBC News. 

"And to even take that chance, why? You just put other people's lives at risk."

Mark Healey, incident commander for the B.C. Wildfire Service, says evacuees staying behind can impede operations as firefighters might not be able to use certain tactics. It also puts the firefighters and the individuals themselves in danger.

He says firefighters often lay out large-diameter hoses to prevent fire from reaching properties, which can trap people who stay behind. 

Thousands of evacuations throughout province

Many of the largest and most dangerous fires are burning in the southern Interior.

A helicopter carrying a water bucket flies past the Lytton Creek wildfire burning in the mountains near Lytton, B.C., on Sunday. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Sunday night, the City of Armstrong, about 75 kilometres north of Kelowna, issued an evacuation alert for the entire community of roughly 5,000 as the White Rock Lake fire burned about 20 kilometres outside of town. 

Another wildfire of concern caused "limited damage" in West Kelowna, to the south, due to the separate Mount Law fire. As of Monday afternoon, more than 3,000 people in the area were on evacuation alert, preparing to leave their homes at any given moment. 

The entire city of Merritt is also on evacuation alert after the July Mountain and Brook Creek fire merged Sunday. The fires also resulted in the closing of the Coquihalla Highway between Hope and Merritt on Sunday night.  It remained closed as of 3:30 p.m. local time Monday.

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said Emergency Management B.C. is working on plans for possible mass evacuations out of parts of the Interior, particularly if highways out of those communities remain closed. 

Routes will be opened as soon as possible to ensure safe passage out of evacuated communities, said Rick Manwaring, deputy minister of forest lands, natural resources operations and rural development.

Officials urge tourists to avoid southern Interior

As wildfire conditions are not expected to let up any time soon, officials are pleading with tourists to stay away from affected communities.

"Do not travel to fire affected areas for nonessential reasons," Farnworth said Monday. 

"If you're planning to travel to those areas, it's time to change your plans."

The B.C. Wildfire Service has also asked people to stay away from areas close to the fires to ensure the access and safety of first responders. Boaters are also being asked to avoid areas of the lake being used by air support.

Farnworth pointed out people are already being discouraged from visiting the Central Okanagan due to an outbreak of COVID-19. 

"This is not the time to visit or travel through," he said.

Meanwhile, Premier John Horgan has been noticeably absent over the last few days, raising concerns on social media. 

In an emailed statement, his press secretary said he has been providing direction to ministers while on vacation.

"While spending time with his family away from the office, Premier Horgan has been briefed daily — sometimes several times a day — on the important issues and crises facing British Columbians," the statement said. 

Farnworth said the premier is doing "exactly what he is supposed to be doing."

"Our Premier has been in complete solidarity with all the people of British Columbia," he said.

Horgan is expected to return Thursday.

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 Courtney Dickson


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