PEACHLAND, B.C. – Thousands of people grabbed their most cherished possessions and fled with a few moments notice Sunday night from the path of a forest fire in the British Columbia’s Okanagan region that was whipped into a frenzy by high winds.
The fire was reported in an area called Trepanier Bench, on the west side of Peachland, B.C., around 3 p.m., by RCMP officers conducting a speed patrol on the highway. Within a half hour, the first evacuation order was issued as winds up to 40 kilometres an hour stoked the flames.
By the time darkness fell, more than 1,500 people had been ordered to evacuate and about 800 more were preparing to leave as an evacuation alert was extended into the downtown of the community on the west side of Okanagan Lake.
“It was kind of a chaotic scene, people driving down the streets with their trucks full of their belongings,” said Natasha Chudyk, who was driving from Summerland to Vancouver.
Ashes fell from the sky like snow as helicopters and water bombers picked up water from the lake to try and douse the flames. Chudyk said she could taste the smoke in her mouth, and hours later, the acrid smell still permeated her truck.
After passing through a road block to continue the journey to Vancouver, she could see the flames.
“What was most alarming to me was there was a ranch that had been evacuated and the home nearby was on fire and there were six or seven horses completely on their own.”
She posted a photo on Twitter and people who saw the picture were trying to get trailers to evacuate the animals.
“The flames were just grabbing a hold of the trees and just taking off, little fires all over the place. When we got up onto the (Okanagan Connector highway), the fire was right beside the highway.”
Peachland is 380 kilometres northeast of Vancouver and 25 kilometres southwest of Kelowna on Okanagan Lake.
Courtenay Waslyw, 32, and her husband were forced to flee the home they moved into only two weeks before.
“I had heard a report about an hour after we were evacuated that there was a house about a block away from ours that went up in flames,” said Waslyw.
“It’s a very, very condensed area and I thought, ‘Oh my God’ because there’s tons of houses up there and lots of properties with horses. And if it goes up, it’s going. There would be no way to stop it.”
Waslyw said she had heard two homes had burned down.
Officials did not immediately know how large the fire had become, or whether any structures were damaged.
It started off as a beautiful summer day, with a bright blue sky, said Dave Preston, editor of the Peachland News, as he prepared for a long night on standby to flee his home.
“The wind did pick up. It was blustering quite well, then just a few minutes after three, there was this enormous column of smoke that rose above the mountainside and just within minutes the wind picked up horrendously and the fire just grew and grew right before our eyes,” Preston said as night fell and the helicopters trying to fight the blaze could no longer see well enough to fly.
“I’m looking up toward the Ponderosa neighbourhood and there’s a very eerie orange glow just beyond the hillside.”
Police and emergency vehicles were gathering in the neighbourhood preparing to expand the evacuation order. The nearest home being abandoned was only about 500 metres from the home Preston shares with his wife and son.
“We’re not on alert at this time but several hours ago we packed up the car just in case,” he said.
“We’re not going to go to sleep. If the winds shift… right now they’re very calm. There’s barely a breeze in the air. But if the winds shift — quite often in the Okanagan at night the winds do shift, and they come from the mountains down into the valley. And if that were to happen we’re probably going to be high-tailing it out of here.”
Highway 97, which was closed around Peachland for several hours, reopened around 9 p.m. as winds calmed.
One woman told radio station CKFR that she was forced to pack up in less than 20 minutes and report to the support services centre in Westbank.
“Well, it was a lovely Sunday afternoon until the smoke started pouring in and then it went from a nice relaxing afternoon to all hell breaks loose in one quick minute,” she told the station.
A man who answered the phone at the Westbank Lions Club, one of two centres where evacuees were being directed, could barely yell above the din in the facility.
“It’s a zoo,” he shouted before saying he needed to keep the line open for emergency calls and hanging up.
RCMP Const. Steve Holmes said a crew was quickly assembled to fight the flames. Several helicopters, at least one water bomber and a ground crew were on the scene.
“We’re dealing with a pretty unpredictable fire,” Holmes said.
“Our biggest issue has been with Mother Nature, which is the high winds we’ve been experiencing in the area, and the unpredictability,” Holmes said.
“They’ve been changing direction and they’ve been driving a lot of smoke, a lot of flames down towards Highway 97 as well as smoke up onto the 97 Connector.”
Some residents could see the approaching flames as the order went out.
“People were very co-operative in leaving the area,” Holmes said.
An emergency operations centre was set up in nearby Kelowna, and evacuees were directed to two emergency registration centres — one at the arena in Summerland and another at the Westbank Lions Club.
A provincial emergency official said the size of the blaze was not known.
“We had a livestock rescue come in as well and get a lot of the horses and other animals out of the area,” Holmes said.
The Okanagan is no stranger to devastating forest fires.
The mountainous region surrounding Okanagan Lake is home to award winning wineries.But the arid conditions that allow vineyards to prosper also pose a fire hazard in dry summers. Nine years ago in September, a massive fire in and around Kelowna forced the evacuation of more than 27,000 and burned down 239 homes.