Community support fuels B.C. wildfire fight as residents come to grips with losses

The fire chief of Wilson's Landing on the shores of Lake Okanagan says the wildfire moving down the mountain toward his community made an "unearthly" howling sound as it stirred up winds to become a "self-feeding beast."

Paul Zydowicz says his team had been monitoring the blaze and helping residents of nearby Traders Cove reduce fire risks around their homes, but once the flames crested the mountain and began burning downslope, they knew it was a "done deal."

He says the firefighters waited in Traders Cove until the "ember showers" started around 7 p.m. last Thursday, "and then it just exploded."

Zydowicz says he's among 13 of 24 members of the Wilson's Landing Fire Department who had lost their own homes by the time the blaze subsided.

He says he and his wife plan to rebuild on their property and most of his crew members have expressed similar desires, although some may choose to leave the community that fluctuates between 500 and 1,500 residents throughout the year.

The fire chief says support from the community has kept the firefighters going.

"We went to a call and came back to having nothing," Zydowicz said in an interview.

"You don't really understand that you don't have anything until you go, 'Okay, well I'm gonna go get changed, but I have no clothes to change into.'"

The Kelowna-based charity Mamas for Mamas stepped up to provide basic necessities, he said, and further donations have followed.

Zydowicz said his message to his team is that they will be OK.

"We have a portion of the community that has not been destroyed. It's a lot easier to rebuild when you have neighbours," he said.

"We have an incredible community spirit ... We just have to be resilient."

In nearby West Kelowna, B.C., Fire Chief Jason Brolund says "it's all about emotions" as firefighters and residents begin to process the devastation wrought by a fast-moving wildfire just over a week ago.

Brolund says he and his crews are "gutted by the losses" of more than 170 homes in his community and others on the shores of Okanagan Lake.

But he says they're starting to breathe "a collective sigh, although very cautiously," given the hot, sunny weather in the forecast for the province's southern Interior.

Brolund says community support has been like "fuel" for his crews, from children stopping by with encouraging signs to the meals being prepared for firefighters.

He says about 900 people from West Kelowna were allowed to return home yesterday as evacuation orders in the Central Okanagan were rescinded.

Orders are also being lifted for some in the District of Lake Country and on Westbank First Nation lands, though active firefighting continues in the region.

The B.C. government, meanwhile, says mental health supports are available for people affected by wildfires, with disaster psychological support personnel deployed to emergency reception centres throughout the Interior.

The McDougall Creek wildfire, responsible for much of the destruction in the Kelowna area, has burned about 123 square kilometres of land since being discovered on Aug. 15.

Emergency workers are again warning boaters to stay off Okanagan Lake in the section between the W. R. Bennett Bridge and Fintry Provincial Park to accommodate firefighting aircraft that may make use of the water.

An update from the Columbia Shuswap Regional District, meanwhile, says the Bush Creek East wildfire has destroyed more than 130 structures and partially damaged almost 40 more, as crews continue to battle the 418-square-kilometre blaze.

Cooler and wetter weather earlier this week — including heavy rainfalls in parts of the Okanagan and Shuswap regions — helped firefighters turn the tide on several major local blazes.

Environment Canada says weather in both the Okanagan and the Shuswap will be sunny and warm this weekend, with high temperatures pushing 30 degrees Celsius before rain is forecast to return next Tuesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 26, 2023.

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press