British Columbia

West Kelowna wildfire firefighters gaining ground

Ground crews putting out hot spots above West Kelowna have been putting in long hours of tiring manual labour, but said Saturday that they appeared to be gaining ground on the Smith Creek wildfire.

Thousands out of their homes under evacuation order, but 250-hectare fire now roughly 30% contained

Eric Koppe and Jake Sparks take a break from tackling ground hot spots Saturday to speak with media 1:39

Ground crews putting out hot spots above West Kelowna have been putting in long hours of tiring manual labour, but said Saturday that they appeared to be gaining ground on the Smith Creek wildfire.

"It's a pretty good fire, but controllable, for sure," said Jake Sparks, a firefighter for the past seven years.

Sparks said his team started three days ago, chopping and digging into smouldering stumps and patches of forest floor on steep slopes above West Kelowna.

They aim to work 12-hour shifts, but end up putting in closer to 16 hours each day.

Sparks says the hardest part of the work is keeping properly fed and hydrated, and staying alert despite the heat and inevitable exhaustion.

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      "Making sure you keep your head up — the swivel — watching trees come down. Just all around kind of keeping your head in the game," he said.

      The tops of many trees are burnt and brittle, and clumps of charred wood keep falling down around the firefighters, Sparks explained. But overall, things are looking up in the firefighting effort, he said.

      "Everything is pretty good. These ministry guys are all doing their jobs, and it's awesome."

      One third contained

      B.C.'s Wildfire Management Branch said five helicopters, multiple air tanker groups, and 75 men and women from the Wildfire Management Branch and local fire departments were working at the Smith Creek wildfire Friday, and even more resources would be arriving Saturday.

      Tracy Wynnyk, the fire information officer for the area, said the fire that has been threatening close to 1,100 homes in West Kelowna has been 30 per cent contained, up from 20 per cent on Friday.

      "Right now, things are looking really good," she said.

      A firefighting aircraft attacks the Smith Creek fire in West Kelowna Friday. Firefighters managed to partially contain the wildfire, but warned they could quickly lose ground if winds pick up. (CBC)

      She said higher humidity and cooler weather has stopped the 2.5-square-kilometre blaze from spreading.

      There has not been much rain, she said.

      Jason Luciw of the Central Okanagan Regional District Emergency Operations Centre said the evacuation order that impacted roughly 2,500 people is expected to stay in place for the immediate future.

      "Until we get a handle on the fire and we're comfortable where it's at, we have to keep the orders in place," said Luciw. "RCMP are patrolling the area and blockading the area to make sure that the area is properly evacuated."

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          Displaced people have been asked to stay with friends and family, and those who have nowhere to go have been issued hotel passes, he said.

          Some people have even contacted emergency services to offer their homes for evacuees to stay in, Luciw said.

          "It's really encouraging to see how the community steps up and offers to help in a situation like this," he said.

          The Central Okanagan Emergency Operations Centre said there is a reduced risk of power lines being cut by the fire, though residents are being urged to be prepared for an outage.

          Animal lovers have been seeing that those with four legs are also being helped.

          As of Friday afternoon, volunteers from the Canadian Disaster Animal Response Team, operating out of the evacuee reception centre at Mount Boucherie Secondary School, together with local dog control, rescued a total of 16 horses, 21 dogs and 21 cats for people residing within the evacuation area.

          The Smith Creek wildfire, part of which is shown here in a photo taken Saturday, was 260 hectares in size and 50 per cent contained Sunday morning. (CBC)


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