On Friday evening, B.C. premier David Eby declared a province-wide state of emergency as forest fires forced tens of thousands of people out of their homes. Some of the worst of the fires have been in Kelowna and West Kelowna, located in the Okanagan region.
As of Saturday, nearly 11,000 residents and visitors were evacuated from the region with over 9,000 in the Central Okanagan placed on evacuation alert. Over the weekend, three large fires raged in the region; the Lake Country wildfire, the Clifton/McKinley fire, and the McDougall Creek wildfire. Many of the fires are now controlled and many evacuation orders have been lifted, along with the advisory discouraging travel into the region.
Hot temperatures, dry conditions, and high winds fueled the fires, allowing them to spread at a rapid pace. The hellish situation was captured by residents and visitors watching in horror as the picturesque vacation town faced the uncontrolled blaze.
“I’ve never felt panic like this in my life,” says McKinley Beach resident Bill Crow. Bill, who retired to the north Kelowna neighbourhood in October of 2022, first became concerned about the fire at a dinner party Thursday night.
“Around 8:30 p.m. we saw this red dot on the mountain across the lake and assumed they would put it out,” recalls Bill. “About an hour later, half the mountain was red. The fire wasn’t on the mountain, the fire was the mountain…When we found out it had jumped the lake, everyone got up and said ‘okay we’re leaving.’”
When Bill spoke to us on Sunday he was calling from his home—he had briefly returned to grab essentials. He described the smoke as a “thick fog” and reported headaches. Bill’s neighbourhood was on evacuation alert but Clifton, to the south of them, Lake Country to the north, and West Kelowna had all been evacuated. “It’s really disconcerting knowing that there are wildfires all around us.”
The situation was just as precarious for Kelowna cottagers. “Our property has been in the family for many years, and with that comes so many memories and an emotional attachment that the thought of it going up in flames is difficult to imagine,” says Rebecca Foster, whose family cottage is located just north of the McDougall Creek fire, and Lake Okanagan Resort—which has been destroyed by the fire.
“The feeling of helplessness being away from the property [and not being able] to help family members who stayed behind has been very stressful and emotionally draining,” she says.
Rebecca recommended that cottagers with properties in regions at high risk for fires invest in remotely operated rooftop sprinkler systems and security cameras to keep tabs on their property from afar. As of Monday evening, crews were stationed on Rebecca’s family property and working to keep the fire to the west of their location on Westside Road.
“The response to these fires has been second to none,” says Tom Dyas, mayor of Kelowna. “Both from emergency personnel and from community members and organizations who fed and provided shelter to those who were evacuated.”
When the fires first broke out the region had a total of 10 to 12 fire assets such as trucks and other fire equipment and around 40 firefighters on rotation, but within 24 hours support quickly poured in from 30 surrounding municipalities in the form of 110 assets, 600 firefighters, and over 40 additional RCMP officers who went door to door enforcing evacuation orders and keeping neighbourhoods safe, Dyas informed us.
“Back in 2003, we had a fire that claimed 283 structures. With this fire, it’s looking like we’ve lost around 200, but we rebuilt and welcomed people back then and we will do the same this time,” Dyas says.