Standing 20 metres away from the flames, the Okanagan Centre wildfire was as close to a forest fire as Blair Ireland had been in his life—an experience he won’t soon forget.
Ireland, the Okanagan Centre ward councillor on Lake Country council, said it was frightening to watch the speed with which the fire raced up the steep incline Saturday afternoon, from its roadside starting point along Okanagan Lake West Road.
Flames candled atop the forest canopy and spread across ground below that hasn’t seen rain in a month, venting towards the homes on Nighthawk and Tyndall roads.
“I had never seen anything like that before. I have watched fires across the lake burning but never seen it that close to houses before,” Ireland said.
Ireland’s story is like that of many Okanagan Centre residents among the 331 property owners who were evacuated from their homes with little or no notice.
They barely had time to collect any personal possessions, many leaving with their garage doors still open and front doors unlocked, as police officers from across the valley moved in to assist Lake Country RCMP to block off traffic and keep potential looters away.
Another 657 property owners found themselves on evacuation alert, giving them time to decide what to take if the order to leave, and to deal with their farm animals and horses.
Ireland said it all began for him when the daughter of a neighbourhood friend came to their house, located a short distance outside the evacuation zone, in tears telling him about the fire.
“Her father called me about a minute after that as he was out of town, asking if we could grab some of their possessions, get their essentials out,” he recalled.
“They don’t have a big house so my wife and I ran down there and cleared out their stuff they wanted. At that point we were about 20 metres from the flames and you could already see the fire was running so fast up the hill.
“I knew right away the homes on Nightwalk would be affected and you just hope at that point the best will come out of that situation.”
Ireland said he watched the firefighting effort as the night went on, amazed at the howling winds changing direction to fuel the spread of the fire and the aerial show provided by 11 airplanes and helicopters called in to attack the blaze from the air.
“I must have been watching that and the progress of the fire until 3 a.m. and at that point the wind was still blowing,” Ireland said.
Ireland said he tried to assist the RCMP to keep people out of the evacuation area who had no business being there except to watch the fire show.
“People left everything behind because they had so little time to prepare. It was a knock on the door and ‘You have to leave now.’ So you want to look out for your neighbours, they are friends of ours in our community,” he said.
Ireland said he felt safe despite his house being on the edge of the fire, as the fire’s direction was headed uphill, moving away from his property.
“I was confident it was not going to come back down the hill again,” he said.
Grant Kolbeck, who rents a home on Nighthawk, said he had enough time to grab his cat and leave.
“I have been in the oil and gas industry for many years so I know when there is a fire, there is no time to go, you just go,” he said of evacuating his home.
His wife was away in Saskatchewan at the time, but she had already heard of the fire and was calling him on his cell phone barely an hour after the fire had started.
“You could see the fire coming our way and the pine trees were crackling,” said Kolbeck, as he stood in the parking lot of Winfield Community Hall on Saturday evening with others who also had evacuated, wondering where he was going to stay that night.
Lake Country deputy fire chief Brent Penner credits the initial response from their four-person crew for keeping the loss of homes from being considerably higher.
Whipped up by gusting winds, Penner said one house had already gone up in flames when firefighters arrived, and they were confronted by steep terrain with limited access for a fire truck, as the smoke thickened and the flames took off.
“It started near the bottom of the hill near the lake and quickly took off. At one point we thought were going to lose all of Nighthawk,” he said referring to the houses.
“We were playing catch up to get ahead of the fire to prevent structures from being lost but some were lost.
“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 initially even see him until he started banging on my hood.”
A Sunday morning reconnaissance of the area on Sunday confirmed that eight houses were destroyed in the fire along Nighthawk and one out building on Tyndall.
Undoubtedly many others suffered excessive heat damage, damaged exterior elements such as melted window frames and smoke damage.
Like so many interface fires, the flames destroyed some homes and blew past others without any apparent rhythm or reason.
Lake Country Fire Chief Steve Windsor said it is the nature of all firefighters to save people’s property, but what is most important was that nobody was killed and no firefighters were seriously injured fighting the blaze.
“We did everything we could to save people’s homes but there is a point where we also have to consider the personal safety of first responders,” he noted.
Kelowna-Lake Country MP Stephen Fuhr, who toured the fire scene with the media on Sunday along Nighthawk, also saluted the efforts of firefighters.
“I asked some of them the question point blank, ‘Is this a best case scenario given this fire?’ and they all responded ‘Yes it was,’” Fuhr said.
“It’s going to be tough for folks who lost their homes and I don’t want to minimize their loss, but I think the fire department did a tremendous job,” Fuhr continued.
“There were no fatalities and no firefighters that I know of were seriously injured, but it’s a reminder to all of us how hazardous it can be here in the summer and how we all have to be very, very careful.”
Beyond the up close look at a raging forest fire in destructive action, Ireland said the image of his community pulling together, and the help that came from other communities in firefighter support, left an impression on him.
“(On Sunday) those people who lost their homes had a chance to see what was left. My heart goes out to those people. But for our firefighters to step up and prevent more loss of homes than resulted was pretty amazing,” Ireland said.
“And to be watching it unfold and see fire trucks passing you from Swan Lake and Armstrong, people from other communities coming here to help us, helps restore your faith in humanity a little bit.
“It’s unfortunate we have to go through situations like this to find that. If people were nicer to other people all the time, life would be pretty great.”