The strong winds that sent a fire barrelling towards this lakefront community in British Columbia’s Okanagan proved too much for firefighters attempting to keep the blaze away from homes, with gusts of wind acting like flame throwers and destroying four houses.
The fire, which started Sunday near Peachland and moved three kilometres in a little more than an hour, continued to send thick clouds of white smoke over the community Monday, with more than 1,500 residents under an evacuation order.
Three homes and an abandoned house were destroyed, fire officials said, along with several out buildings in the northern and western edges of town. No one was injured.
“The wind was blowing very hard in that area,” Peachland’s fire chief, Grant Topham, told a news conference Monday.
“We had the crews in there and they saved many, many homes. The wind blew the fire into those homes. They tried to save them as best they could; they tried their best. They saved many homes, but unfortunately, there were some they could not, did not save.”
Hundreds more people remain on evacuation alert.
The fire started near a park on the northern edge of Peachland, a community of about 5,200 located 380 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, but it wasn’t clear what caused it. Wind gusts as strong as 50 kilometres an hour fuelled the fire, which quickly grew to two square kilometres.
On Monday, 65 firefighters were at work with the help of water tankers, 17 fire trucks and half a dozen water-bombing helicopters. By mid-morning, officials said they considered the fire 50 per cent contained after a night of cooler temperatures and rain slowed the fire’s spread.
Topham said crews had made progress, but the fire wasn’t under control yet.
“We have areas where there are hot spots, there are trees that are still burning, there are stumps that are still burning,” he said.
“We are expected to get up to possible 50-kilometre winds. We may or may not get rain.”
Elsie Lemke, director of emergency operations for the District of Peachland, said officials were working to contact the residents whose homes were destroyed, but she wasn’t sure how long that might take.
“Our hearts go out to the property owners who have suffered loss because of this fire,” she said.
An emergency reception centre was set up in a community hall in nearby West Kelowna, where volunteers were taking down contact information and offering free hotel stays and other supplies to people who needed it.
Eddie Stadelman, 78, stopped by and secured a two-night stay for him and his wife, who were told to evacuate Sunday evening.
Stadelman said they were about to sit down for “a happy hour,” when gusts of wind prompted him to walk outside to have a look around.
“I looked up and there was smoke, and I knew there was going to be trouble,” said Stadelman, a retired Toronto firefighter.
Stadelman gathered photos, important documents and keepsakes, certain that the evacuation order was only a matter of time. Soon after, a police officer driving by with a loud speaker proved him correct.
“We expected to be evacuated because that wind was blowing and that smoke was rolling,” he said.
“In my mind, I have an escape plan. We had everything, so we just picked it up and put it in the car.”
Stadelman said he can see his house from the highway that runs just north of town, and he could see it was untouched.
Thick smoke lifting up from the mountains to the west of Peachland drifted over town, leaving the taste and smell of burnt wood in the air.
The buzz of helicopters was constant, as a steady stream of water bombers flew to Okanagan Lake before returning to douse the blaze.
The sky had been clear earlier in the morning, but eventually clouded over and residents were hopeful for the forecast that predicted rain.
On the other hand, the winds remained strong, picking up intensity as the day wore on.
Ron Polak noted the increasing winds with worry, wondering whether he and his wife would soon be among those forced out of their homes.
“From my house, through the trees, you can see a lot of smoke,” said the 50-year-old carpenter.
“It was a pretty late night for us.”
Polak said he first heard about the fire from a friend who was watching it from across the street.
“He actually phoned and said he was having some fun watching the fire, and then he got a little nervous and a bunch of us went there and got his stuff out of there and got him out,” he said.
“Next thing I knew, we were trying to get back into town to get other people out.”
Polak noted everyone in the Okanagan is respectful of the awesome power of forest fires. The arid region is home to award-winning wineries, but the same dry conditions that make vineyards a success can pose a forest fire hazard during dry summers.
Nine years ago, a late August forest fire around Kelowna, 25 kilometres up the road from Peachland, forced 27,000 people from their homes and eventually destroyed 239 homes.
“Everybody’s pretty conscious (about the fire risk). It’s the reality,” Polak said.
“2003 was a pretty big fire, but that was on the other side of the lake. This is more in your backyard.”
— The Canadian Press