As an out-of-control wildfire still burns near West Kelowna, officials say evacuated residents should brace themselves for a return to neighbourhoods they may no longer recognize.
As people continue to return home or begin rebuilding , officials from the Regional District of Central Okanagan say crews are still busy addressing the aftermath of the McDougall Creek wildfire and also issued a reminder that affected residents are not walking that road alone.
On Tuesday (Sep. 12) the Central Okanagan Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) hosted an online information session for property owners in the Regional District of Central Okanagan (RDCO), Westbank First Nation (WFN) and City of West Kelowna.
It provided information to help support those on evacuation order or who have recently returned home, including those who experienced property damage or loss.
“We will work to get everyone home as quickly and safely as possible,” said Chris Anderson with the EOC.
Work is still being done to replace water, sewer and other damaged utilities, as well as assessment of hazardous trees, hotspots and underground fires that may still be burning.
“Be aware of those in your neighbourhood as you return home,” said Lance Kayfish, with the EOC, adding that people “to have a heightened level of caution and safety” when they explore their neighbourhood because it will not be exactly as they left it.
He says it’s likely that wildlife including deer and bears will be in areas where there’s been an absence of human activity during the evacuation period.
Some areas, he said, may still have active fire hot spots or “ash pits,” while fire-damaged trees may be in danger of falling.
“So, if you’re out and about walking the dog, or children are playing in those areas, please have a heightened sense of safety and awareness with respect to staying away from burned trees wherever possible,” he said.
Kayfish also said creeks and rivers will likely be altered by the fire activity, and he gave “advanced warning” of faster-moving waterways due to damaged vegetation nearby.
Kayfish also encouraged property owners to stay in touch with their insurance company, contractor or restoration company as they clean up and rebuild.
“It’s important to hire qualified professionals to help you through the process. Hazardous material could be present in demolition waste and a hazmat assessment will be needed.”
The RDCO is working with a local company to facilitate the curbside pickup of refrigerators and freezers.
David Cooper with BC Hydro said work also continues to restore power to homes.
“Our electrical system did take some pretty severe damage,” he said.
Of the 584 properties that lost power 462 have been reconnected. Cooper expects the remaining properties will have power restored by Sep. 21.
“We have a list of meters that were destroyed and have requested to have those accounts closed,” he said. “The last thing you’re going to want is to receive a bill from BC Hydro for an estimate.”
Cooper said bill credits will be coming to customers as well.
“We are to help you with anything you might need.”
Recovery Manager Steve Schell at the Resiliency Centre in West Kelowna reminded residents that they are a single point of contact for information and advice.
“We strongly encourage them to come and see us here and we can provide that information,” he added.
The First Nations Emergency Services Society (FNESS) also has a representative at the centre.
“Particularly to address challenges that Indigenous people are facing,” said Jim MacDonald with FNESS. “To help them better understand the support that is available to them.”
Interior Health officials noted that counselling services are available for anyone who may need them. Information and resources can be found on the EOC, RDCO, FNESS, WFN, and City of West Kelowna and Interior Health websites.
Central Okanagan Emergency Operations said Tuesday that 4,858 properties remain on alert in the region, and 380 properties remain on evacuation order.
Elsewhere in B.C. wildfire news
Elsewhere in B.C., the latest evacuation order issued due to a wildfire covers a rural area north of Prince George.
The regional districts of Fraser-Fort George and Bulkley-Nechako issued the order Monday night as the 10-square kilometre Ocock Lake blaze moves toward properties in the Noonlang Lake area, about 150 kilometres north of Prince George.
The order is the only one issued in B.C. since Monday, but several other orders and alerts have been ended or downgraded over the same period, including orders covering 25 homes in the West Kelowna wildfire.
Central Okanagan Emergency Operations said residents of properties between the 900- and 1400 blocks of Westside Road on the western shore of Okanagan Lake can go home almost a month after an evacuation was imposed, but they must be ready to leave on short notice.
Evacuation alerts have also been lifted throughout the Westbank First Nation and in parts of several West Kelowna neighbourhoods, including Lower Glenrosa, Smith Creek, Westbank Centre, Shannon Lake and the West Kelowna Business Park.
The BC Wildfire Service reported Tuesday that close to 400 active blazes are burning across the province, with 158 ranked as out of control, while the number of threatening or highly visible fires has dropped from 14 to 11 since Monday.
— with a file from The Canadian Press