Canada — A late-season fire scorched a popular B.C. hiking trail and forced 550 residents and 100 campers to flee with only minutes to pack.
The wildfire started in Bear Creek Provincial Park in West Kelowna around 10 p.m. Monday and quickly consumed a dozen hectares of grassland.
By 1 a.m. Tuesday, flames were approaching Westside Road as residents of the Trader’s Cove subdivision and campers in the park drove to safe ground.
“I could see the flames over top of where our mailbox is on Westside Road,” said Ab Hardy. “The flames would be about 300 metres from where I was standing . . . They were burning up the tree. You could see vertical flame-shafts going up the trees.”
Some campers fled their sites with only a few clothes. Jenny Lackstone of Vancouver was tenting with her three young children when the smoke woke her up at midnight. She bundled them into the car and left behind their tent, chairs, sleeping bags and other camping equipment.
“I was amazed by how much smoke had increased over an hour or so,” she said. “A police officer said, ‘Pack up your things just in case we do decide to evacuate the campground.’ I couldn’t breathe well. I said, ‘We’re leaving right now.’ So we were one of the first cars to leave.”
The human-caused blaze started in steep terrain up the western slope of Bear Creek Canyon. Overnight winds blew the flames downslope into the canyon and the grassland bench at the south side of the park.
The fire burned through the celebrated trail that surrounds the lower part of the canyon near the shore of Okanagan Lake. Several wooden bridges and stair systems were feared lost.
At sunrise, four forestry helicopters began dumping lake water on the burning areas. An air tanker dropped lines of red retardant around three sides of the fire at 8 a.m. About 40 firefighters dug guards along the hiking trails and used the trails to access the flames with hose lines.
Because the fire was close to the lake, the choppers could fill and dump their 300-gallon tanks or buckets every few minutes.
By early afternoon, the fire extended 39 hectares but had stopped growing. Even though the temperature hit 30 C, the wind remained light.
The flames reached 400 metres from the nearest house and up to the outhouses in the parking lot at the Bear Creek trail area. They never crossed Westside Road. Many of the 40 structural firefighters with West Kelowna Fire and Rescue were sent home later Tuesday.
The evacuation order for Trader’s Cove, the campground and Bear Lake Forest road was lifted at 6 p.m. Forestry officials allowed residents to return home Tuesday night via single-lane traffic, but they remain on evacuation alert.
The fire forced most evacuees to take the 90-minute detour to West Kelowna to register with Emergency Social Services. The first few campers were allowed to take the southern route to the highway before police blocked it off at Sailview Bay.
The campground was about 80 per cent full.
Cathy Larocque and her brother Chris, both of Calgary, left the campground as soon as they could. An official told them to stay in West Kelowna, but Cathy refused.
“No way! I’m not staying on the same side as the fire. I’m crossing the lake,” she said Tuesday.
They drove to Knox Mountain and watched the fire from a lookout. Chris slept in the car for a couple hours but Cathy stayed up all night.
“I’ve never been that close to a fire in my life,” she said. “I was making sure it wasn’t going to cross the road. That’s why I stayed up. I didn’t want it to get into the campground because it’s a beautiful campground down there.”
By 5 p.m., 180 people had registered at the Westbank Community Centre and people living near Sailview Bay were on evacuation alert.
Volunteers woke after midnight and showed up at the reception centre soon after. They set up six tables and processed evacuees so loved ones knew where they were. Most of them asked to stay in a hotel for up to 72 hours.
Delmar and Marguerita Duex, in their 70s, spent Tuesday night at the Holiday Inn in West Kelowna. They were told to leave their Trader’s Cove house but were afraid to drive Westside Road at night. They made the round trip via Vernon, B.C., at first light.
Marguerite realized something was wrong when she spotted a strange light through the drapes of their home.
“I thought, ‘That’s a funny light.’ So I got up and opened the drapes up, and I thought, ‘Gee, what’s the moon doing over there?’ . . . All of a sudden we see this massive fire.”
The fire was 30 per cent contained, mostly by Westside Road, by Tuesday evening. A night-shift crew patrolled the boundary for hot spots.
The Kamloops Fire Centre has ordered an investigative team to determine what caused the wildfire.
Hardy’s first thought was a bush party of high-school students. People camp and party about two kilometres up Bear Creek forest road, a spot close to where the fire started.
“You can access the canyon on the upper end of it. It’s kind of a party zone,” he said.