An aggressive fire burning near a rural subdivision in the West Kelowna area that quadrupled in size overnight Monday is spreading rapidly, having already displaced scores of residents from their homes.
Bucketing helicopters, skimmers and air tankers are working to fight the blaze, which forced the evacuation of people from about 70 homes between the 3900-block of Westside Road to, but not including, La Casa Lakeside Cottage Resort.
Many of those not directly threatened by the fire are leaving the area because of smoke, ash and power outages.
“It’s a big impact for us because the actual fire put the power out so we haven’t had any power here since 1 a.m. last night,” said Keith Fisher, strata operations manager for La Casa Resort, which has lost direct road access to Kelowna after part of Westside Road was closed because of the fire. “We’re lucky because the smoke is kind of missing us, but you can smell it in the air and every once in a while, you’ll see ash. Quite a few people have departed, even though we haven’t had an evacuation alert.”
The Westside Road fire has grown to 430 hectares, up from 175 hectares earlier Tuesday, and 30 hectares Monday evening.
Upslope winds aided efforts to keep the wildfire away from homes along Westside Road on Tuesday afternoon. No homes have been destroyed.
“The growth has been all upslope, moving to the ridgetop,” said Dale Bojahra of the Wildfire Management Branch. “So not much movement to the north or south. All to the west, up the hill into the timbered area away from homes.”
The speed and intensity of the blaze is ranked as 4.5 on a scale that extends from one through six.
Bojahra said the fire started as two separate fires that grew together.
The lightning-caused fire started Sunday, but flared up considerably on Monday as a result of strong winds.
“Wind is our No. 1 enemy out here,” said Bojahra. “Although we did have a bit of rain recently, it’s not enough to really slow the fire hazard down. We’re still seeing a lot of activity.”
Jeff Harder’s Ex Nihilo vineyard is located directly across Okanagan Lake from the fire, and on Monday night he watched as the blaze consumed the opposite shore.
While boating with his wife on Sunday, Harder saw the lightning strike that ignited the fire.
“Poof, up came some smoke, and within 45 minutes to an hour there were helicopters on it,” he said.
But by Monday, high winds had kicked up, fanning the embers of the fire.
“Within two hours, that half of the mountain was on fire and the power was knocked out on the other side of the lake.”
The affected area — which falls within the riding of Premier Christy Clark, who plans to visit the area Wednesday with Forests Minister Steve Thomson — is mainly vacation homes. Scores of residents on the west side of Okanagan Lake were ordered to leave the area early Tuesday and RCMP officers moved in to patrol the evacuation zone, according to Central Okanagan Emergency Operations.
In all, 1,400 BC Hydro customers have had their power cut off due to the fire. The outage stretches from just north of Lake Okanagan Resort to Westshore Estates, about 10 kilometres north of Fintry.
Fire information officer Melissa Klassen said late Tuesday that fire activity lessened a bit in the afternoon with lighter winds than expected. “It’s still a very aggressive fire, but it’s a little quieter now.”
Structural firefighters from Wilson Landing and North Westside are battling the fire with support from the ground and aircrews with the B.C. Wildfire Service.
A staff member at Gray Monk estate winery, located across Okanagan Lake from the fire, said the flames burned brightly into the evening Monday. By Tuesday, smoke appeared to settle in over the wildfire and waft in the direction of the east side of the lake, she said. Water bombers could be spotted flying over the burning forest.
Bruce Smith, a spokesman for the Central Okanagan Emergency Operations, said Tuesday that the fire came close to a lot of properties, but firefighters were able to save them.
Another 80 properties in the West Kelowna area are under evacuation alert for another fire in the Bear Creek area, estimated at 1.8 hectares.
The evacuation order in the Okanagan followed another issued for several people late Monday for the area surrounding Bolean Lake due to an aggressive wildfire between Bolean Lake and Falkland.
Provincial Fire Information Officer Kevin Skrepnek said 114 fires started across the province on Monday, and another 32 by Tuesday afternoon, most of them sparked by lightning, bringing the provincial total to 265 fires in the province. To date, the province has spent more than $130 million to fight wildfires.
On the plus side, a large fire in 2009 may help limit the spread of the blaze, said Bojahra.
“This fire is actually burning close to the Terrace Mountain Fire, so in some ways a previous fire may actually help us if the fire ends up being pushed to that previous burn.”