Evacuations continue in B.C.'s Okanagan as fires burn across province

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Flames are seen in the hills on the southeast side of Skaha Lake, east of B.C.'s Okanagan Falls, on Sunday. (Submitted by Liz Burritt - image credit)
Flames are seen in the hills on the southeast side of Skaha Lake, east of B.C.'s Okanagan Falls, on Sunday. (Submitted by Liz Burritt - image credit)

Families in dozens of homes in B.C.'s south Okanagan were still being ordered to leave their properties Monday as a fast-moving wildfire burned through the nearby hillside, with hundreds more residents on standby to evacuate at a moment's notice.

The B.C. Wildfire Service said the fire on the southeast side of Skaha Lake, east of the the Okanagan Falls, is still burning aggressively after tearing through five square kilometres within hours on Sunday — but so far in a better direction.

"The fire is actually burning in a southeasterly direction, so away from all the homes and heading up slope," wildfire officer Kim Janowsky said during a public meeting on Monday.

Skaha Lake is south of Penticton in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley.

Dozens of people did not follow an evacuation order in the Okanagan Falls area, according to the Regional-District Okanagan Similkameen (RDOS). The order issued Sunday covered nearly 80 properties, but fewer than 10 people in that area had registered at an evacuation centre by late evening.

"The number of property owners that have stayed on their property is significant," said Bill Newell, director of the RDOS Emergency Operations Centre.

"We were again out there this morning trying to get an update on who is there and who has left."

The district suspects many have stayed behind to care for livestock like cows and horses. Officials are considering allowing temporary access for farmers who need to get back into the evacuated area to feed their livestock.

On Monday evening, the evacuation order for the Okanagan Falls area was rescinded back into an alert.

B.C. Wildfire Service
B.C. Wildfire Service

Janowsky said the fire "grew substantially" overnight, ranked as a five on a six-point fire scale when it comes to fire activity. Still, flames did not jump containment lines crews had created to protect homes.

"We're very thankful it went as well as it did," said Janowsky.

The wildfire service said eight firefighters, two helicopters and numerous pieces of heavy equipment were at the scene before dusk and worked through the night. The work will continue Monday.

"This fire is still very volatile, it is still declared out of control," said Newell, warning that a simple shift in wind direction could worsen the outlook.

Roughly 600 properties under evacuation alert are east of the lake, south of Heritage Hills and down to the McLean Creek Road area.

Newell said those under evacuation order or alert should register online. He said those with fire insurance should also contact their insurer as a precaution.

The Thompson-Nicola Regional District has also issued an evacuation order for nine properties on Monday night, due to the Sparks Lake blaze.

Boaters asked to stay off lake

Skaha Lake is a popular tourist destination in the hot, dry summer months and favoured by boaters. Firefighting aircraft have been using the lake for water to dump on the flames, but officials said there have been issues with boaters getting in the way.

The service has asked people to stay clear.

"If they so choose to stay on the water and not get out of the way, they're going to compromise our fire suppression efforts ... it could spell disaster very quickly," said Janowksky.

The suspected human-caused fire is one of more than 300 currently burning across B.C. The wildfire service said 173 of those were sparked between Friday and Monday morning.

Two-thirds were started by lightning.

Twenty-five fires are ranked as especially threatening or visible. Those fires include the newly spawned Okanagan Falls fire; the devastating fire that destroyed the village of Lytton; and another north of Kamloops that has scorched 402 square kilometres of bush in just two weeks.

WATCH | Hundreds of fires fuel anxiety among B.C. residents:

Heat warnings return

Wildfire risk across most of B.C. is ranked high or extreme. Environment Canada has issued another round of heat warnings for parts of the central and southern Interior, including the region where crews are still battling the 88-square-kilometre fire that levelled Lytton.

Heat warnings issued Sunday by the weather office call for above-seasonal daytime temperatures of 33 C to 38 C, and only moderately cooler conditions overnight.

"Heat warnings are issued when very high temperature or humidity conditions are expected to pose an elevated risk of heat illnesses, such as heat stroke or heat exhaustion,'' the Environment Canada warning said.

There are also air quality statements in effect for the same regions due to wildfire smoke.

The warnings are expected to remain in effect until Wednesday.

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