Lightning-caused wildfires in B.C.'s Okanagan prompt evacuations, traffic chaos

Several lightning-caused wildfires continue to burn out of control in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley prompting evacuation orders and intermittently closing the main highway.

Dozens of homes evacuated as several fires burn out of control throughout the valley

BC Wildfire Service says a fire four kilometres south of Peachland was one of the most serious currently burning in the Okanagan Valley. (Lori Freer/Twitter)

UPDATE: Growing B.C. wildfires trigger more evacuation alerts in Okanagan Valley

Evacuation orders and alerts have been issued in parts of British Columbia's Okanagan Valley after a cluster of wildfires broke out following a fierce lightning storm that swept across the southern Interior.

BC Wildfire Service spokesperson Kevin Skrepnek said Thursday that a fire burning four kilometres south of Peachland on the west side of Okanagan Lake — dubbed the Mount Eneas fire — was one of the most serious. 

On Wednesday it forced the evacuation of dozens of properties in the regional districts of Central Okanagan and Okanagan-Similkameen. Residents, campers and visitors were directed to reception centres in West Kelowna and Penticton. On Thursday, the district of Summerland issued an evacuation order for a number of properties. 

Grant Endres, an evacuee of the Mount Eneas fire, said the blaze was burning 15 to 18 metres above his house as it made its way down the mountain. He said RCMP showed up to alert his family of the evacuation.

Grant Endres, who was forced out of his home due to the Mount Enaes fire near Peachland, says the blaze was burning right above his house. (Brady Strachan/CBC )

"When they're standing at your door, you don't really have time to do much, so I'm still in pyjamas," Endres said. 

"[I'm] just nervous and anxious, you know, devastated a little bit if our house burns. You know, kind of crossing our fingers, hoping that it doesn't."

Okanagan Lake Provincial Park remains under an evacuation order. It was one of several camping areas and nine properties evacuated late Wednesday as the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen declared a state of local emergency.

Highway 97 was closed temporarily on Wednesday as fires came close. (Jeremy Loewen)

The fire also temporarily closed Highway 97 on Wednesday afternoon. It reopened, with major delays, before being closed again around 6 p.m. PT Thursday. It re-opened to single-lane traffic at 8 p.m. 

The Mount Eneas fire is only one of dozens in the region sparked on Tuesday when a lightning storm rolled across the Interior during a stretch of hot dry weather.

"We've got a cluster of fires that is of concern right now in the south Okanagan corridor from Kelowna south," Skrepnek said.

Directly across the lake, the Good Creek wildfire in Okanagan Mountain Park south of Kelowna also triggered an evacuation alert on Wednesday, meaning some residents should be ready to leave on a moment's notice.

Farther south near Summerland, the Mount Conkle fire, which now covers 80 hectares, prompted the Penticton Indian Band to declare a local state of emergency and issue an evacuation alert for some residents. 

Lightning struck a hillside near Peachland on Tuesday evening as the storm passed through the Okanagan. (April Loewen)

Linda Roth, who lives in a sixth floor apartment in Penticton, spent the night watching the fires along the lake.

"Last night was horrible. You could just see dark, dark clouds and orange. It was growing all night," she said.

"It all started with that wicked storm on Tuesday night. It was blowing pots off my balcony."

Firefighters recalled

Skrepnek said the Kamloops Fire Centre, which oversees the region, is currently the busiest of the provincial fire centres.

"We are moving resources in from elsewhere in the province, from quieter areas where we can free up resources," he said, adding that additional helicopters and fixed-wing, water-skimming air tankers were also en route. 

Firefighters loaned this month to Ontario and Quebec will also be brought home sooner than expected, he said.

"It's not going to be an immediate recall, but definitely the plan is to bring them back earlier than planned and then cycle them in so they can start to relieve some of the crews we've got deployed in B.C. now."

While temperatures are cooling as a low pressure system moves across the province today, there is also more lightning and wind in the forecast for parts of the southern Interior before temperatures warm up over the weekend.

The fire danger rating for much of the Southern and Central Interior remains moderate or high, with pockets of extreme fire danger across the southern half of the province.

The fire danger rating for most of southern and central B.C. remains moderate to high, with pockets of extreme. (BC Wildfire Service)

Read more from CBC British Columbia

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said the evacuation orders in Summerland were due to the Mount Conkle wildfire. They were due to the Mount Eneas wildfire.
    Jul 19, 2018 7:38 PM PT

With files from The Canadian Press, Mike Laanela, Brady Strachan

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