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B.C. declares wildfire emergency amid desperate battle to save West Kelowna

WEST KELOWNA — Homes were ablaze on Friday in West Kelowna, B.C., with firefighters locked in a pitched battle against a rampaging wildfire that helped trigger a provincewide state of emergency.
British Columbia Premier David Eby has declared a provincewide state of emergency in response to "unprecedented" wildfires that have forced the evacuation of thousands more people in the past hour. Evacuees leave with a trailer of belongings after a wildfire evacuation alert was upgraded to an order and they were forced to leave the Wilden neighbourhood near Knox Mountain, in Kelowna, B.C., Friday, Aug. 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

WEST KELOWNA — Homes were ablaze on Friday in West Kelowna, B.C., with firefighters locked in a pitched battle against a rampaging wildfire that helped trigger a provincewide state of emergency.

British Columbia Premier David Eby said the declaration was in response to "unprecedented" fires across the province that forced the evacuation of at least 10,000 more people late Friday, as the situation "evolved and deteriorated" rapidly.

Ground zero was the Okanagan community of West Kelowna, where the devastating McDougall Creek wildfire destroyed a significant number of properties Thursday night, during a battle that the city's fire chief likened to "100 years of firefighting."

Residents and officials there described frightening and uncanny scenes — people leaping into Lake Okanagan to escape the fire, and the historic Lake Okanagan Resort engulfed in flames as explosions rang out. 

One evacuee said he watched remotely though a doorbell camera as trees outside his home burst into flame.

Smoke loomed high over Kelowna late Friday as the hillsides around the lake continued to burn. Clouds billowed in a thick ribbon from a bright blaze visible from the northbound highway taking evacuees out of town.

Many were bound for Vernon about 50 kilometres away as evacuation orders and alerts sent people packing, with steady lines at gas stations dotting the route.

A firefighting helicopter with a long cable and bucket dipped into the lake in the distance, distorted and blurred by the smoke.

The McDougall Creek fire was "exponentially worse" than expected, Jason Brolund, chief of the West Kelowna fire department, said at a morning briefing.

Wildfires across the province had experienced what the BC Wildfire Service called "extreme" growth Thursday and Friday amid a weather shift that brought high winds and dry lightning.

Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma said the number of people under evacuation order in B.C. went from 4,500 to 15,000 in the matter of an hour late Friday. A further 20,000 people were under evacuation alert, advised to be prepared to leave at a moment's notice.

Ma said the state of emergency would allow the province to compel co-operation in the fire fight from "unwilling partners," although co-operation had so far been excellent.

Not everyone has been so co-operative.

Brolund told the morning briefing that some first responders became trapped while rescuing people who didn't heed warnings to leave as the McDougall Creek wildfire advanced rapidly toward West Kelowna, describing the development as a firefighter's "worst nightmare."

“There were a number of risks taken to save lives and property last night,” Brolund said. "It didn’t have to be that way."

He also said a number of people were rescued from Trader's Cove in West Kelowna after jumping into the water as a "last resort" to escape the flames.

Central Okanagan Regional District chairman Loyal Woodridge said there was no known loss of life.

The BC Wildfire Service said the McDougall Creek fire had grown to 105 square kilometres in size, up from 11 square kilometres Thursday afternoon.

Brolund said the fire fight wasn't over and residents would be facing another "scary night" on Friday, with conditions projected to be even worse than those that first whipped up the blaze.

Brolund said Thursday was a "devastating night," probably the toughest of his career.

"We fought hard last night to protect our community. It was like 100 years of firefighting in one night," he said.

The fire chief said “night turned to day” as the fire lit up the sky. 

He said crews could not verify the number of homes destroyed because counting them wasn't possible with fires actively burning.

“There was a significant number of structures lost,” Brolund said. “We need to stop this fire before it continues. Then we’ll do the counting. There are homes burning out there right now.”

Evacuation zones were being expanded across the lake into Kelowna, a city of more than 150,000, late Friday, widening the scale of the crisis. University of British Columbia Okanagan campus was evacuated as a new wildfire encroached.

Embers from the McDougall Creek fire are suspected to have jumped the lake and caused the spot fires on the eastern shore, although Brolund said the cause could not be confirmed.

The spot fires triggered a local state of emergency in Kelowna around midnight. An emergency had already been declared Thursday in West Kelowna and by the Westbank First Nation, however the First Nation downgraded a portion of its evacuation order to an evacuation alert late Friday. 

An evacuation order was also issued for residents of about a half dozen properties in Kelowna's Glenmore area, and hundreds of other residents nearby were put on evacuation alert.

RCMP say officers were being deployed to secure evacuated neighbourhoods.

West Kelowna resident Les York was in a boat on the lake when he watched the Lake Okanagan Resort burn down.

"We saw the lower building start to burn and we could hear explosions," he said.

"It was crazy … you'd drive along and there'd be a house gone, and then you drive along and there'd be like a tree on fire in the middle of rocks."

Steven Francis said he has had to flee the community three times in the nearly three decades he’s lived there. 

But on Thursday, the “fiery snake” of flames that ripped through trees left him breathless.

“I was standing in awe,” Francis said. “It was a huge, monstrous, aggressive fire … it stretched and stretched.”

Metro Vancouver resident Darren Chen arrived in Kelowna for a vacation Tuesday. On Thursday night, he watched as clouds turned red and black across the lake. 

“On my way to downtown Kelowna, I saw the fires and the trees as tall as buildings bursting into flames,” said Chen, who is now trying to make his way home.

Beyond the Okanagan, an evacuation alert was issued late Thursday for 216 properties in the village of Lytton, threatened by the Kookipi Creek wildfire in the Fraser Canyon.

The wildfire service said hot, dry conditions resulted in "extreme fire behaviour" by the blaze, which crossed Highway 1 and caused the closure of the highway in both directions.

Cliff Chapman, operations director with the wildfire service, told the morning briefing that flames were driven by high winds and became up to 150 metres tall. 

He said the magnitude of the fire led some to mistake its huge smoke cloud for a volcanic eruption. 

The Squamish-Lillooet Regional District meanwhile expanded an evacuation order in response to a fire northwest of Lillooet. It said RCMP and other authorities would be "expediting" the evacuation.

Chapman said "now is not the time to ignore an evacuation order."

"Our priority right now is human and responder safety," he said, citing incidents in West Kelowna in which RCMP and firefighters had to be sent back into the fire zone to help people get out. 

Such events took a "significant toll" on the mental health of staff, he said.

Ma had told the morning briefing that non-essential travel to Central and Southeast B.C. should be avoided. Firefighters should be given "space that they need to keep us safe," she said.

After the provincial emergency declaration, she suggested the order could compel people not to travel to fire zones.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in Edmonton that residents of Kelowna were "facing an extraordinarily scary afternoon."

"The federal government is closely co-ordinating with the province of B.C. and we will be there to add to whatever resources B.C. has," he said.

Federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Harjit Sajjan said he was also watching the situation in the Okanagan closely, calling it "very concerning."

"We have offered up full federal support in support of this fire and I encourage all the residents to listen to the guidance of the local authorities in making sure they are safe," he said during a Zoom news conference Friday.

Fire crews had been bracing for what Chapman predicted would be the most challenging days of the province's record-breaking wildfire season.

Chapman said Thursday that a cold front was bringing high, unpredictable winds and dry lightning.

Of the 382 active fires in the province, 159 were out of control and more than a dozen were considered either highly visible or a threat to a community.

West Kelowna resident Francis, his wife and their four pets made their way to a crowded evacuation centre Thursday night and on Friday morning were sent to what he was told was one of the last available hotel rooms in the city.

He observed the fire situation through his home's doorbell camera, which now served as a "fire monitoring system,” he said.

He watched online Thursday as small groups of trees burned outside the house.

On Friday, the home still appeared to be intact.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 18, 2023.

— With files from Dirk Meissner, Brittany Hobson in Winnipeg, Bill Graveland in Calgary and Nono Shen in Vancouver

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 18, 2023.

Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press