British Columbia

Firefighters were warned about string of arsons before destructive Lake Country wildfire

Police have connected 29 wildfires dating back to 2014, and have formed a task force to search for suspected arsonist or arsonists.

RCMP believe 29 Okanagan wildfires were caused by arson and are all connected

A deliberately set wildfire quickly spread through a Lake Country neighbourhood on July 15, 2017. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Ralph Smith was just getting ready to settle in for a nap one day last summer when a wildfire suddenly ignited near his home in Lake Country, B.C.

His home and seven others were quickly swept up in the flames and destroyed, but Smith is acutely aware of how much worse things could have been.

"Another half an hour, and I would have been down and out — I never would have known it was coming," he told CBC.

Soon after that disastrous July day, Smith and the other homeowners learned that investigators believed the fire had been set deliberately.

And then this week, there was more unsettling news — police had connected the Lake Country wildfire to 28 other Okanagan arson cases dating back to 2014. The RCMP have set up a task force to track down the person or people responsible.

"I just hope they catch the guy and string him up. Whoever's done this has ruined so many lives," Smith said.

One of eight homes that burned in a wildfire in Lake Country on July 15, 2017. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

Mounties aren't revealing how they drew connections between the 29 fires, except to say that investigators have found similarities in all of them.

"Thankfully, no one was injured or killed, but there's always the potential for loss of life," Staff Sgt. Annie Linteau told CBC.

The fires were set in Naramata, Okanagan Falls, Osoyoos, Oliver, Penticton, Summerland and Lake Country — mostly in the interface areas where wilderness meets human habitation.

Firefighters in the Okanagan have been aware of an issue with wildland arson for some time, according to Lake Country Fire Chief Steve Windsor.

"We were actually prepped by the RCMP quite a ways prior to our [2017] fire to look out for certain indicators," he said.

Investigators believe that whoever is responsible is looking for a particular set of conditions before setting the fires, according to Windsor.

"We think that the individual looks at an area and then he looks at potentially the weather forecast. In our particular case, it was a combination of the weather factors and the topography that created such an inferno and took off so quickly," he said.

Police believe last year's destructive wildfire in Lake Country was caused by an arsonist or arsonists. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Handout/West Kelowna Fire)

The consequences of those fires have been huge for people like Smith and his wife. They lost more than just a home — their in-house bed and breakfast was also destroyed.

Nearly a year later, Smith says they're done with the hospitality business. They've taken a buyout from their insurance company and bought a piece of property on Vancouver Island.

"We're going to rebuild there, some place that's a lot quieter," Smith said.

Map of suspicious wildfires

The Intentionally Set Wildfires Task Force asks anyone who has any information about any of the 29 wildfires to contact the designated tip line at 1-855-685-8788 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477. (RCMP)

The 29 wildfires include, in part, the following:

  • July 7, 2014, K50209, Naramata
  • July 7, 2014, White Lake Road, Penticton
  • July 9, 2014, Richter Pass, Osoyoos
  • July 15, 2014, Mt. Kobau, Oliver
  • July 15, 2014, Apex Road, Penticton
  • July 17, 2014, Reservoir Road / Landfill Road, Penticton
  • July 22, 2014, White Lake Road, Okanagan Falls
  • Aug. 11, 2014, Chute Lake Road, Naramata
  • Aug. 11, 2014, Green Mountain Road, Penticton
  • Aug. 13, 2014, White Lake Road, Penticton
  • Aug. 19, 2014, North Naramata Road, Naramata
  • Sept. 15, 2014, Green Mountain Road, Penticton
  • July 2, 2015, Canyon View Road, Summerland
  • Aug. 7, 2015, Pampas Grass Way, Oliver
  • Aug. 8, 2015, Spiller Road, Penticton
  • Aug. 11, 2015, Commonage Road, Lake Country
  • Aug. 11, 2015, Beaver Lake Road, Lake Country
  • Aug. 12, 2015, Gulch Road, Naramata
  • Aug. 14, 2015, White Lake Road, Penticton
  • April 9, 2016, Fairview-Cawston Road, Cawston
  • Aug. 17, 2016, Commonage Road, Lake Country
  • Aug. 17, 2016, Oyama Road, Lake Country
  • July 3, 2017, Pixie Beach, Lake Country
  • July 15, 2017, Okanagan Centre RoadW, Lake Country
  • Sept. 1, 2017, Westhills Road, Penticton
  • Sept. 1, 2017, Old Princeton Hwy, Summerland

Anyone with information about the suspicious fires is asked to call the Intentionally Set Wildfires Task Force's designated tip line at 1-855-685-8788 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.

With files from Mike Laanela, Tina Lovegreen, Anita Bathe and Max Haberstroh

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