KEREMEOS, BC – Shifting winds are keeping communities on edge in British Columbia’s South Okanagan, where an out-of-control wildfire has forced the evacuation of the village of Olalla and residents of Keremeos nearby were asked to prepare to leave.
Winds in the area are notorious for their unpredictability, forcing firefighters and emergency officials to prepare for the worst, regional director-elect Tim Roberts said Friday.
“We are always at risk from Mother Nature, so it’s always good to be preventative, prepared for the worst and hoping for the best,” he said in an interview.
He said the native name of Keremeos was “valley of the three winds, so you can tell, the winds change hourly”.
But after gusts of north and south at 50 km / h Thursday evening, conditions became favorable on Friday and the winds died down, allowing firefighters to try to stop the advance of the forest fire as it approaches Olalla.
“So far it hasn’t been that tough a day, which is obviously fantastic,” BC Wildfire Service spokesman Bryan Zandberg said.
He said firefighters worked to build protective areas outside of Olalla, located about 40 kilometers southeast of Penticton.
“Again, our focus is on Olalla and structural protection,” Zandberg said.
He said about 400 firefighters were battling the 51 square kilometer Keremeos Creek blaze that forced the complete evacuation of Olalla.
The Okanagan-Similkameen Regional District said nearly 550 homes were under evacuation orders Friday afternoon due to the unpredictable nature of the fire.
More than 1,000 other properties are on evacuation alert, including those in the nearby village of Keremeos.
Much of the wildfires were concentrated in steep, mountainous terrain Friday and were less threatening to Olalla’s estimated 400 properties, but that could change, Roberts said.
“It’s a very unpredictable fire in terms of winds and terrain,” he said. “You’re looking at very steep slopes, cliffs, heavy wood clustered on the mountainside.”
The evacuation orders and alerts were issued Thursday night by the Okanagan-Similkameen Regional District as winds pushed the wildfire into a “problem corner,” Zandberg said.
“What we were going through was pretty tough. Things got pretty tough along 3A,” Zandberg said during a Friday briefing.
Winds pushed the flames towards communities, forcing the closure of Highway 3A, which runs through Olalla and Keremeos.
The blaze is one of 146 reported by the BC Wildfire Service over the past week, although new fire starts have decreased over the past two days due to slightly cooler and calmer conditions.
Environment Canada predicts temperatures will return to the 30s this week, with gusty winds that could complicate firefighting efforts, but there are no signs of the thunderstorms that have ignited many recent wildfires.
The BC Wildfire Service said this week that the province is expected to experience sustained wildfire activity through August and September, particularly in southern areas, with long-term forecasts of hot, dry weather.
The Forest Fire Department said six fires are currently classified as notable wildfires, but overnight rain helped crews contain two.
Forest Fire Department spokeswoman Roslyn Johnson said 10 millimeters of rain had quenched the three square kilometer fire burning on the prairies just north of Kamloops, reducing it to a smoldering fire.
The roughly 10 square kilometer blaze not far from Pavilion near Lillooet also received about 16 millimeters of rain on Thursday, which the forest fire department said would dampen the flames until at least Tuesday.
Other notable fires include a 37 square kilometer blaze west of Lytton, where the wildfire department said cooler weather had “diminished” its activity.
The Forest Fire Department said Friday night that the Weasel Creek Wildfire, which was discovered July 30 northeast of Eureka, Montana, has crossed the border into Canada.
He said the Canadian portion of the fire covered about 6.2 square kilometers in the Flathead Valley west of Frozen Lake.
Another blaze in the Southeast Fire Center grew after creeping into inaccessible terrain south of Cranbrook, but the other, south of Kaslo, saw little change over the last day.
— By Dirk Meissner in Victoria
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 5, 2022.
The Canadian Press