Canada–– PEACHLAND, B.C. – Tilman Hainle lost his boyhood home in the vicious wildfire that swept down a mountainside near this lakeside Okanagan community Sunday, but Canada lost a piece of history.
The house where Hainle grew up sat abandoned on a former vineyard where he had worked for 40 years, the result of a decision to sell the property to a developer last May.
It was also the property where Canada’s first commercially released icewine was created in 1978.
Hainle was a teenager when he and his father collaborated on the first of what would become the signature Canadian product.
“It’s a time for mixed emotions,” Hainle said in a sober interview Monday, hours after officials confirmed the house and three other homes were destroyed by the blaze.
“It certainly has a lot of significance, not just in terms of our history but it’s a significant piece of Canadian wine history as well.”
The strong winds that sent the fire barrelling toward this lakefront community on Sunday proved too much for firefighters attempting to keep the blaze away from homes, with gusts of wind acting like flame throwers.
By suppertime Monday, weather and fire conditions had altered enough for emergency officials to partially lift an evacuation order so 1,134 residents could head home.
“Fundamentally, we had really good favourable weather,” said Kirsten Jones, a public information officer with the local emergency operation’s centre.
“Now, after a day of fighting and fairly decent weather, and not near the smoke conditions or the wind of last night, fire officials felt it was safe to allow these people to go back home.”
Jones said she had no idea when the remaining 416 residents still under an evacuation order would be allowed to return home.
Emergency officials announced Monday night that the fire was 75 per cent contained and about 200 hectares in size.
Despite getting the go-ahead to return, Carmon Gorzynski, 28, said she planned to remain in a local hotel with her twin six-year-old son and daughter for the night and head home in the morning.
“I don’t know what’s going on, and it’s still windy so I don’t even know why were allowed to go back,” said Gorzynski. “But I guess they have it under control if they’re letting us back.”
Meanwhile, Courtnay Wasyliw, 33, said she’d try to return home Monday night, even though the home she and her husband recently moved into is still covered by the evacuation order.
“I just want to go home, really,” she said. “We still have our personal belongings there.”
Wasyliw said she tried to return home earlier in the day but was stopped by police who said there were just too many hotspots.
Wasyliw said she understands her house is still standing and is thankful for all those who have volunteered and helped out.
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.
“The wind was blowing very hard in that area,” Peachland’s fire chief, Grant Topham, told a news conference earlier on 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.”
Several outbuildings were also damaged or destroyed.
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.
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 himself 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 had remained strong, picking up intensity as the day wore on.
Ron Polak had 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.”
Peachland Mayor Keith Fielding had been handing out awards at a summer fair Sunday when the forest fire began to rage. He raced home to help his wife and disabled daughter evacuate into their motor home. They were among the hundreds who spent the night in a hotel.
“I know I speak for all council when I say our thoughts are with those who suffered loss from the fire and those who are still awaiting news that they can return to their homes,” Fielding said at a news conference Monday.
“The response to this quick moving fire has been exceptional.”.