Canada — B.C. fire crews and north Okanagan residents got a taste of nature’s capricious power this weekend when a forest fire that was almost completely surrounded broke out of its corral, forcing thousands of newly returned residents to flee again.
Firefighters had the three-week-old Terrace Mountain blaze 90 per cent contained when gusty winds sent it surging over the fire guard Saturday evening.
The fire rapidly advanced four kilometres, triggering an evacuation order for 2,500 residents of Fintry and other developments along Okanagan Lake.
Another 2,100 people remained on evacuation alert Sunday.
Meanwhile, about 120 residents of Brookmere were ordered to leave as a 200-hectare fire came within five kilometres of buildings in the small community about 40 kilometres south of Merritt, B.C.
The Terrace Mountain fire grew by more than a third, to just over 70 square kilometres, Suzanne von der Porten, a fire information officer with the B.C. Forest Service, said Sunday.
“Winds in the area gusted up to 50 kilometres an hour, which is in part what contributed to the vigorous fire behaviour that afternoon,” she said.
Crews thought they had a grip on the fire after two days of rain showers July 24-26, just after the first evacuation.
But there’s been no rain since then and winds drove the flames across the fire guard and into parched forest land up the side of a valley.
“Once it was fully exposed on the ridge, upper-level winds grew the fire in both intensity and in size,” said von der Porten.
The shift forced residents into the now-familiar drill of tossing essential belongings into their vehicles and escaping.
The problem this time was that the busy holiday long weekend meant there was no room at the inn for evacuees, even as far south as the U.S. border.
“We had no hotel rooms available in the central Okanagan at all (Saturday),” said Bruce Smith, public information officer at the Central Okanagan regional district’s emergency operations centre.
About 400 residents were registered at an emergency reception centre set up in a Kelowna school. Some 170 people were taken to accommodation at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus in Kelowna, while others were put up at a church.
“There were people who were actually sleeping in vehicles,” said Smith.
“There were people in RVs and tent trailers who just set up in the (school) parking lot rather than go anywhere else.”
Smith said a lot of evacuees are summer residents who spend their time vacationing in the area.
“Many of them may have decided just to go home once the evacuation took place yesterday.”
Smith said the remainder will be moved into hotel rooms once the weekend holiday crowd checks out .
Von der Porten said crews were working Sunday to re-establish the fire guard on the blaze’s eastern edge.
About 240 firefighters, 16 helicopters and 83 pieces of heavy equipment were working the blaze, which officials say was human-caused.
“So far the winds have been lighter than they were this time yesterday, so that’s good,” she said.
They’re watching the fire’s behaviour closely because dry fuels, steep terrain and winds off Okanagan Lake increase the threat.
After being almost completely hemmed in, the fire now is only 30 per cent contained.
“It’s hard on crews that have been working on it,” said von der Porten. The previous two weeks’ efforts did prevent the loss of homes and equipment,” she added.”
“Things went as well as they could considering the intensity of the fire burning.”
Meanwhile, 2,500 residents of Lillooet remained on evacuation alert Sunday as the Mount McLean fire continued to edge towards the village, about 250 kilometres north of Vancouver.
The fire, started by lightning on July 22, now is estimated at about 26.5 kilometres. The eastern edge of the blaze, about a kilometre from Lillooet, grew by about 20 hectares overnight.
“The game plan … is to continue a holding action on the fire on both fronts, on the eastern front above the town of Lillooet and on the western front along Seton Lake,” said fire information officer Gary Horley.
“The plan would be to do some more burning off on that west flank if conditions present themselves.”
The threat triggered an evacuation alert for the district of Lillooet, which includes the village and surrounding properties.
“We are all on an evacuation alert but no notice has been given,” said Gerry Sucharyna, a spokesman for the district’s emergency operations centre.
“That order, if it came down, would affect every resident on the west side of the Fraser River.”
Winds were fairly calm Sunday morning but Sucharyna said that likely wouldn’t last.
“The forecast is for higher winds so we remain on alert and we’re very eager to see what’s going to happen,” he said.
The close-knit community has a well-established evacuation plan, he added.
The forest service currently lists 88 active wildfires in the province, some burning since early June.
Only a few are so-called interface fires, which threaten homes or other structures.
There have been almost 2,100 fires so far this season, scorching about 550 square kilometres of forest. The vast majority were caused by lightning.
Much of the province is covered by bans on campfires and other open flames. Premier Gordon Campbell has urged people to avoid going into the backcountry until the fire risk diminishes.