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B.C. orders fire-zone travel bans as evacuations soar

KELOWNA — British Columbia imposed bans on travel to wildfire zones on Saturday after evacuee numbers doubled to 30,000 or more, marking another day of dramatic developments in the province's desperate battle against hundreds of blazes.
The wildfire battle in British Columbia continues today, focusing on the central Okanagan where flames tore through West Kelowna suburbs and forced the evacuation of neighbouring Kelowna's University of B.C. campus. The McDougall Creek wildfire burns on the mountainside above lakefront homes in West Kelowna, B.C., on Friday, August 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

KELOWNA — British Columbia imposed bans on travel to wildfire zones on Saturday after evacuee numbers doubled to 30,000 or more, marking another day of dramatic developments in the province's desperate battle against hundreds of blazes.

The epicentre of the fight is the Okanagan in the southern Interior, where fire chiefs hailed the efforts of an "army" of firefighters trying to hold off fires looming over the lakeside communities of West Kelowna and Kelowna.

West Kelowna fire chief Jason Brolund painted a vivid picture of what his fire crews were facing on Saturday, including multiple simultaneous housefires and a "street full" of homes ablaze.

Yet he said the situation represented a reprieve compared to the pitched battles being fought the day before, something he described as "mind-boggling."

B.C. Premier David Eby said the sheer scale of the evacuations prompted the government to issue an order restricting travel to fire-affected areas to ensure accommodation was available for evacuees and emergency personnel.

He told a news briefing the order restricts non-essential travel for the purpose of staying in temporary accommodation such as a hotel, motel or campground.

Eby put evacuee numbers at 35,000, although Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma said it was 30,000, with a further 36,000 on evacuation alert.

Evacuee numbers stood at 15,000 late Friday when Eby announced a provincewide state of emergency in response to the fires.

Ma said the latest order, effective immediately until Sept. 4, restricted travel for anyone planning to stay in temporary accommodation in Kelowna, Kamloops, Oliver, Osoyoos, Penticton and Vernon.

“Let me be clear. Temporary accommodation in the areas I have listed are no longer available for non-essential visits,” she said, adding would-be tourists need to "change your plans."

People already in accommodations were being asked to check out early, she said. The order excludes travel for medical reasons, funerals and a range of other activities.

Eby also said Solicitor General Mike Farnworth had authorized emergency provisions to allow municipal RCMP resources to be deployed to evacuated areas and secure empty properties.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office issued a statement on Saturday saying he convened the incident response group — made up of ministers and senior officials — to discuss the wildfire situation in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.

The group agreed on the importance of making additional resources available to both jurisdictions and "working closely with all orders of government in order to support Canadians," the statement read.

Trudeau also discussed the provincial situation with Eby, his office said in a separate release, noting he pledged to provide all necessary aid from the federal government.

In the Okanagan, West Kelowna fire chief Brolund said firefighters continued to face multiple structure fires.

But he said the previous night's battle got a boost from calmer and cooler conditions.

He said there were "real successes" overnight thanks to the efforts of about 200 firefighters battling the destructive McDougall Creek wildfire.

“We were still fighting tens, multiple structure fires at the same time in the community. So to call that a reprieve, it just boggles my mind,” he said at the morning news conference.

He said he was sad to report multiple structures were lost again Friday.

“Today the fire fight is on again out there," he said.

“Normally when we fight a house fire it’s contained to one structure … but these things are all wrapped up in one and it’s an entire street full of houses that’s on fire being faced by these firefighters.”

“That’s the type of things we are facing today. Multiple structures and all of the contamination that comes along with it.”

Kelowna fire chief Travis Whiting also confirmed structural losses in his city, adding he couldn't confirm specific numbers until after homeowners had been informed.

Claire Blaker came down to the Kelowna waterfront to look across the lake, wondering if her house in the West Kelowna Estates was still standing.

Blaker, a city resident for 13 years, first visited her insurance broker to print out important policy papers, hopeful that she’s covered in case of the worst.

She worried about her sister, who lives less than half a kilometre from her, and her elderly neighbours.

“You could see a number of houses on my street just kind of candling up, one house, then the next house and the next house, so I’m not sure how far down (the fire got),” she said, describing what she saw Friday night.

“It’s just like, what can you do? And, I don’t usually get too emotional but I definitely got some tears welling up at the evacuation centre, and you’re just in shock.”

The extent of the destruction in the Okanagan was underscored by Ross Kotscherofski, chief of the North Westside Fire Rescue service.

He said some of his firefighters had seen their own homes go up in flames.

“Even though some of these members have lost their homes, they still remain dedicated to the community and they show up every single day,” he said.

Fires deemed out of control now burn on both sides of Lake Okanagan, including the devastating McDougall Creek fire that the BC Wildfire Service says covers 105 square kilometres.

Threatening Kelowna on the east side of the lake is the so-called Clifton-McKinley fire, comprised of several blazes.

But conditions were calmer than during Thursday and Friday's desperate battle against flames that consumed numerous homes and other properties, including the Lake Okanagan Resort.

Jerrad Schroeder of the BC Wildfire Service described Okanagan firefighting conditions Saturday as “subdued compared to the previous night."

"Today would be characterized as a good firefighting day. It’s a day where we can roll equipment and crews,” he said.

The last new evacuation order in the central Okanagan was issued at 9:18 p.m. on Friday, in contrast to earlier that day and late Thursday when orders poured in.

At least one evacuation order for part of the Westbank First Nation was also downgraded to an alert around midnight.

Saturday dawned cool and calm in Kelowna, with a blue sky visible through the smoky haze.

Chris Durkee and Danielle Mogdam and their five kids just returned to their Kelowna home from a trip to Alberta and thought they were safe from the fire across the lake, only to be awoken by a neighbour banging on their door to tell them a mountainside visible from their yard was on fire.

But Durkee, who has lived in Kelowna for 30 years, said they aren’t panicking just yet — but they have a trailer packed and ready to go should the flames get too close.

Caution persisted among authorities too.

Interior Health recommended that 715 elderly residents be evacuated from seven care homes in West Kelowna and Kelowna. The health authority said it was up to individual operators to arrange the evacuations.

Elsewhere, a series of evacuation orders were issued for residents of the southern Interior Shuswap area Friday night, threatened by the Lower East Adams Lake wildfire and the Bush Creek fire.

The Columbia Shuswap Regional District and area Indigenous nations issued evacuation orders for the Scotch Creek, Lee Creek, Celista, Magna Bay and Little River areas.

The Scotch Creek and Takana Bay bridges were closed and Scotch Creek residents were told to evacuate by boat.

The wildfire service said the lightning-triggered Lower East Adams fire on the east side of the lake had grown to 100 square kilometres, while the Bush Creek fire to the west is now 33 square kilometres.

The service said areas under evacuation alert due to the Bush Creek fire "may receive an evacuation order today" due to severe weather.

The Columbia Shuswap Regional District said Friday was an "unprecedented and profoundly challenging day" as it fought the most devastating fires in its history.

A fire in the Lytton area, meanwhile, forced the evacuations of numerous properties Friday, including the closure of the Trans-Canada Highway, while the Downton Creek fire in the Gun Lake area near Lillooet destroyed homes.

There are about 380 wildfires burning across the province, including 158 that are out of control and 16 wildfires of note that are highly visible or a threat to people or properties.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 19, 2023.

Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press