A West Kelowna man says he is still in shock after the wildfire tearing through the region burned down his condo and forced him and his eight-months-pregnant wife to evacuate twice in one night.
Randy Miskuski said his family had to evacuate from their condo at the Lake Okanagan Resort last Thursday as the McDougall Creek fire approached.
When the couple retreated to their rental home in another part of West Kelowna, Miskuski said they were then evacuated a second time as the wildfire kept burning.
“All of West Kelowna basically went dark, and there was a big power outage,” he said.
Miskuski’s rental home has not been damaged, but the condo and the rest of the resort were destroyed.
Officials said Monday that wildfires in the area have damaged at least 60 structures, prompting the premier and two senior cabinet ministers to announce an upcoming visit to survey the damage.
Fire chiefs from West Kelowna, Kelowna and Lake Country said homes have been destroyed in their communities, with West Kelowna sustaining the most losses at 50 properties and higher numbers still expected.
Premier David Eby then announced he would visited the fire-ravaged area on Tuesday, accompanied by Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma and Forests Minister Bruce Ralston.
“Our goal is to reassure people that we will be there when the crisis passes to help them rebuild,” Eby said. “But also to get information from the front line about what communities need to ensure government is as responsive as possible.:
The premier made the comments at a wide-ranging news conference where he also spoke about concerns regarding citizens “tampering” with wildfire equipment and called on social media giant Meta to cease blocking Canadian news content on its popular platforms.
Several large wildfires are currently burning in B.C.’s southern Interior. These include the McDougall Creek wildfire affecting West Kelowna, Kelowna and Lake Country, the Lower East Adams Lake fire in the Shuswap Lake area and the Kookipi fire in the Lytton-Boston Bar region of the Fraser Canyon.
Ma said there are more than 27,000 people under evacuation order in B.C. and more than 35,000 on evacuation alert.
The province declared a state of emergency last week and implemented a restriction on travel to many communities in the southern Interior, including Kelowna, Penticton, Vernon and Kamloops.
West Kelowna fire Chief Jason Brolund said the estimate of 50 lost properties is bound to increase, noting a full accounting of the damage caused by the McDougall Creek fire has not been completed.
“This number is an estimate and it represents full and partial losses within the neighbourhoods,” he said. “We estimate that there’s approximately 50 structures. We’re not done yet and the most damaged neighbourhoods are yet to come.”
Homeowner Miskuski said he and his wife are now staying with his parents in the eastern part of Kelowna, and they feel “heartbroken” with the loss of their home of three years at the Lake Okanagan Resort.
Miskuski said many of his favourite spots in his community were destroyed by the fires, and he is still trying to figure out what his next steps should be.
“Right now, it’s just a little bit of uncertainty,” he said. “Kelowna really does need some of the help right now. Anything helps.”
Kelowna fire Chief Travis Whiting said five homes have been destroyed by the wildfire in his city, while Lake Country Chief Darren Lee said two to three structures were lost in his community and others have been damaged.
North Westside Fire Rescue Chief Ross Kotscherofski did not provide a damage estimate, but said some of his own firefighters have lost their homes and are continuing to battle the 110-square-kilometre McDougall Creek blaze that has menaced the Kelowna area for days.
“The firefighters are there to help their neighbours,” he said.
Kotscherofski said some of the Westside firefighters arrived at the fire lines with their suitcases and are now staying in local hotels.
Eby said while firefighters and first responders are valiantly working to save neighbourhoods from wildfires, he’s disturbed by reports of equipment disappearing.
“You are not helping if you are moving firefighter equipment,” he said. “The equipment is put there for a reason and when it’s not and the firefighters go to get it, that is a big problem.”
Eby said he’s received reports of sprinklers and other equipment placed at fire areas by work crews going missing, saying he was being courteous when using the word “tampering.”
The RCMP is also stepping up patrols following isolated reports of mischief and theft, he said.
BC Wildfire Service spokesman Cliff Chapman defended the actions of his firefighters who are working on the Lower East Adams Lake wildfire in the Shuswap Lake area near Salmon Arm, B.C.
The wildfire, which had been burning for several weeks, erupted last week during heavy winds and has now destroyed properties at Scotch Creek, Celista and other locations in the Shuswap Lake area.
Chapman said sustained high winds that changed the fire’s direction, rather than last week’s planned ignition to burn off fire fuel in the area, caused much of the damage in the area.
“We did our planned ignition under the conditions we planned for and it was largely successful,” he said. “I want to be perfectly clear: that planned ignition saved hundreds of homes and properties along the north Shuswap.”
Brolund said he wants to provide residents worried about their properties and keen to learn when they can return home with good, safe information.
“We’re going to do it right,” he said. “We’re going to make sure, to the best of our ability, we don’t make mistakes and we don’t tell someone something that isn’t true.”
Brolund said some of the neighbourhoods looked like they had been hit by a hurricane rather than a wildfire, with trees ripped up by their roots.
“In going through these neighbourhoods we’re finding, for example, that the addresses just aren’t on the buildings,” he said. “In some cases the buildings are gone. In some cases the street signs are melted.”
But he said about a half dozen neighbourhoods in West Kelowna escaped fire damage altogether, including Smith Creek, Tallus Ridge, Shannon Lake, the Lenz Road Trailer Park and Rose Valley.
Officials said crews have made good progress over the past few days and there have been no structural losses in West Kelowna in the last 24 hours.
Brolund paid tribute to the firefighters and fire responders who have been working non-stop to battle the blaze.
He said there have been countless examples of effort that go far beyond the call of duty.
One firefighter was scheduled to participate in his Canadian citizenship ceremony on Monday but chose to stay and fight the wildfire, Brolund said.
Provisions were made to hold the firefighter’s ceremony virtually behind the fire line, he added.
“It gives me goosebumps to tell that story,” he said.
Eby took a moment out of his news conference to direct some sharp words at Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and criticize the company’s decision to continue blocking Canadian news on its Facebook and Instagram platforms during the ongoing wildfire crisis.
“I find it astonishing that we are at this stage of the crisis and the owners of Facebook and Instagram have not come forward and said, ‘Look, we’re trying to make a point with the federal government, but it’s more important that people are safe,” he said.
Eby said it feels as though B.C. residents are being held “ransom” in a dispute between Meta and the federal government over the Online News Act.
“I call on Facebook again,” he said. “Mr. Zuckerberg, open up access to Canadian media so that British Columbians can share critical local information, so they can be safe.”
Meta did not comment on Eby’s remarks, merely issuing a statement saying the company has been clear since February that the Online News Act would affect news sharing on its platforms.
“We remain focused on ensuring people in Canada can use our technologies to connect with loved ones and access information,” the statement read.
The BC Wildfire Service said crews have been taking advantage of recent good weather to go into neighbourhoods, extinguish fires around homes and create a “guard” to prevent more structural losses.
Chapman said 100 firefighters from Mexico will arrive in B.C. Tuesday and 200 from South Africa are expected by the end of this week.
There are currently 386 wildfires burning across B.C.
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