The actions of the initial response crew to the Okanagan Centre wildfire likely saved many people’s homes, says Lake Country’s deputy fire chief.
Brent Penner said when the original call came for a fire on the side of the road along Okanagan Centre Road West on Saturday afternoon, the four-member crew arrived to see the fire had already taken off.
Whipped up by gusting winds, Penner said one house had already been lost as firefighters scrambled to protect other structures as the smoke quickly intensified, while batting against steep terrain and houses surrounded by vegetation and trees.
“It started near the bottom of the hill near the lake and quickly took off. At one point we thought we were going to lose all of Nighthawk,” Penner said referring to houses along that road.
“We were playing catchup to get ahead of the fire to prevent structures from being lost but some were still lost. But that initial response crew did a tremendous job under very difficult circumstances.
“The smoke was so thick…I was the fifth to arrive at the scene and the incident commander was standing in front of my truck and I couldn’t even see him until he started banging on my hood.”
Penner said the residential area of Tyndall Estates was also primarily in the face of the racing fire.
An reconnaissance team is expected to head out this morning and get an accurate assessment of how many homes and other building structures have been lost.
“We definitely had our hands full yesterday but we mustered our troops with a lot of help from other fire departments and made a really good stand in a very challenging situation,” Penner said.
He said while the fire has been 80 per cent contained, there remains fire hot spots within the fire zone and some tree candling.
“Mother Nature didn’t help us much yesterday and won’t be today either with regard to the winds, so the evacuation order and alert will remain in effect for the time being,” he said. “Because of the hot spots and wind, some structures remain still very vulnerable.”
He added that Lake Country continues to receive manpower support from other fire departments across the valley to help relieve local firefighting crews.
He said the area of origin of the fire won’t be hard to identify when the flames have died down, but the cause of the fire is yet to be confirmed.
Karen Miller, communications officer for the District of Lake Country, said the quick activation Saturday of the Emergency Operation Centre helped provide administrative support for the municipality and start up a reception centre in Kelowna at the Salvation Army Church for the evacuees.
Miller, who lives in an evacuation alert area, said these fires are always difficult for district staff who are working on the emergency response effort while their homes may be in harm’s way of the fire.
“People have been calling us from all over the country trying to get updates on what is happening with the fire,” Miller noted.