For Blair and Joanne Croom, returning home to their house on Nighthawk Road in Lake Country today was a mixed blessing.
They knew their home was still standing but learned first-hand the degree of damage the fire caused, while seeing neighbours along their street having lost everything.
“Your emotions are raw. You’re not sure what to say to others who lost their homes. It’s hard to look at the damage left behind, it’s so devastating,” said Joanne.
The Lake Country couple spoke with the media outside their home Wednesday afternoon, recounting how their lives were turned upside down quickly as the Okanagan Centre wildfire took off up the steep hill from the roadside on Okanagan Centre Road West headed straight for their street.
“It was incredible how fast the fire raced up that hill,” said Blair.
He was working in his woodshop on Saturday around 4:30 p.m. when he began to smell what seemed like grass burning.
“I wasn’t sure what it was so I ran out to the front deck of our home and I could see a plume of smoke at the bottom of the hill,” he recounted.
“So I ran back in the house and told Joanne there was a fire and called 9-1-1. I think I ended up being the 10th or 12th caller.
“Then I went back on the deck again to take a look and the fire was already at the top of the hill and starting to engulf (my neighbour’s) house.”
With no advance warning, the Crooms scrambled to grab their passports, medications, cell phone chargers, laptops and the cat.
“That first night we went to our nephew’s house and tried to recap everything that had just happened.
“Everything in that moment just felt like a blur, a nightmare. It was kind of surreal like it didn’t really just happen. It just all happened so fast.”
Blair said the damage to their home was largely concentrated on the north side exterior siding, windows being broken and both the RVs parked in their yard which suffered burn damage to the roofs.
“My son had the insurance adjuster and someone from Voyager RV checking out his trailer yesterday and there are holes burned right through the roof,” Blair noted.
But the couple also felt horrible for their immediate neighbours, who lost their home to the fire.
“They just didn’t lose their home, they lost their livelihood because the home was a bed and breakfast. They lost everything. It is just horrible,” Joanne said.
As the fire skipped some houses and burned eight others to the ground on the same street, Blair said it was odd how the fire blew past their house.
“We have a three-storey home, but in the basement you wouldn’t even know there was a fire. Then the second floor is damaged a bit and the third floor suffered the worst,” he said.
The Crooms are expecting to meet with their insurance adjustor soon but they expect it will take weeks, possibly months, to repair the damage. For those who lost their homes, it could take a year or more.
“Our hope was we could stay in the trailer while the work was going but now we are not so sure because of the fire damage it sustained,” Joanne said.
But the Crooms want to stay. They originally built their home 20 years ago with a pristine view over Okanagan Lake.
“It’s a beautiful spot and the view is incredible. Unfortunately, now we are going to have an even better view,” she said as likely more trees will fall or be cut down along the hillside as the fire recovery efforts continue in the weeks ahead.
Meanwhile, while fire officials are confirming the fire was human caused, Lake Country Fire chief Steve Windsor says nailing down the exact source that ignited the blaze is still under investigation by RCMP arson and provincial wildfire service investigators.
Windsor said these investigations take time due to the need to rule out potential causes as much as to identify the source.
“They might discover a cigarette butt at the originating scene but it takes further investigation to determine how long that cigarette butt may have been there. It’s an elimination process of going through potential causes one by one to arrive at a conclusion,” Windsor said.
He noted while the evacuation orders have been rescinded, the post-firefighting effort continues to put out potential hot-spots that flare up and uncover fires burning in tree root systems underground.
“We are telling everyone to be very careful going forward because we might still find further burning pits on their property that need to be put out,” he said.
“We had about a dozen calls for that last night along and a few more today. So that process could go on for weeks yet.”