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‘Exponentially worse’: Homes ablaze in West Kelowna, after devastating night

Chief says first responders became trapped while rescuing people who didn’t leave
The McDougall Creek wildfire burns on the mountainside above houses in West Kelowna, B.C., on Friday, August 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Homes were still burning in West Kelowna, B.C., on Friday after a devastating overnight battle with a wildfire that authorities said destroyed a significant number of properties.

The fire was “exponentially worse” than expected, said Jason Brolund, chief of the West Kelowna fire department.

Thousands of West Kelowna residents had been ordered to evacuate from more than 2,400 properties as the hills surrounding their Okanagan community erupted in flames.

Brolund told a news briefing that first responders became trapped while rescuing people who didn’t leave as the McDougall Creek wildfire advanced rapidly toward the community, 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.”

Brolund 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.

Brolund said the fight against the fire isn’t over and residents would be facing another “scary night” on Friday, with conditions projected to be even worse than those that whipped up the blaze on Thursday.

The BC Wildfire Service said the blaze had grown to 68 square kilometres in size, up from 11 square kilometres Thursday afternoon.

Brolund said it 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 his crews could not verify the number of homes destroyed because counting them was not 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.”

West Kelowna resident 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 in a phone interview from Kelowna. “It was a huge, monstrous, aggressive fire … it stretched and stretched.”

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

Those spot fires helped trigger a state of emergency in Kelowna, which is on the east side of the lake, around midnight. An emergency had already been declared Thursday in West Kelowna.

In addition to the West Kelownaproperties under an evacuation order, a further 4,800 are under an evacuation alert, with residents told to be ready to flee at short notice

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.

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

“Last night even I was getting pictures and video sent by close friends of mine and our government operations centre contacted the BC Operations Centre to get an update,” he said during a Zoom news conference on Friday.

“One thing I can assure you is 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.”

Fire crews had been bracing for what the operations director with the BC Wildfire Service predicted would be the most challenging days of the province’s record-breaking wildfire season.

Cliff Chapman said Thursday that a cold front was bringing high, unpredictable winds and dry lightning, creating the potential for new fires and further growth for the blazes crews are trying to contain.

Of the 374 active fires in the province, 159 remain out of control and more than a dozen are 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 around 7 p.m. Thursday. It wasn’t until 3 a.m. that they were sent to what he was told was one of the last hotel rooms available in the city. He has been monitoring the situation through his home’s doorbell camera.

Francis watched online on Thursday evening as small groups of trees burned outside his home. The building still appeared to be intact as of Friday morning.

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