By ground and by air: crews fighting Okanagan wildfires face challenging conditions - 660 CITYNEWS
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By ground and by air: crews fighting Okanagan wildfires face challenging conditions

Last Updated Jul 21, 2018 at 2:55 pm MDT

An aircraft drops water on a fire in the Central Okanagan in July 2018. (Courtesy BC Wildfire Service)

Large wildfires burning in the Okanagan have forced a number of people from their homes, and placed hundreds on alert

While the major Okanagan wildfires saw little growth overnight, crews are facing challenging during suppression efforts

Close to 1,000 properties are currently under either an evacuation order or alert in the Okanagan region

Wildfires in the Okanagan are being attacked by ground and by air as crews try to get the upper hand.

The BC Wildfire Service says winds did pick up over night, so helicopters and air support are out surveying the effects gusts may have had on some of the significant wildfires.

When it comes to the Law Creek fire, southwest of West Kelowna, and the Goode’s Creek fire, located in the Okanagan Mountain Park area, crews say they did not see any significant growth.

The Mount Eneas wildfire has seen some growth, but Fire Information Officer Noelle Kekula says it was not significant.

“It did increase in size but where it expanded is where we were anticipating the fire to grow,” she said Saturday morning. “It did still stay within our containment line, so crews are on it again.”

Mount Eneas wildfire as seen through smoky skies by a BC Wildfire Service air attack officer on July 19. (Courtesy BC Wildfire Service)

That fire is currently estimated at a size of 1,374 hectares and has prompted a number of evacuation alerts and orders in the Okanagan-Similkameen and Central Okanagan regions.

“Air support and we also have heavy equipment working all these fires. Good progress was made, however, it was quite windy [Friday] night so we are up looking… at them.”

Hundreds of people are still being told to prepare to leave their homes at a moment’s notice, as their properties are covered by evacuation alerts.

Close to 1,000 properties are still under either an evacuation order or alert.

More than 200 crew members are currently fighting fires in the Okangan Corridor, and once again, Kekula says wind will play a big role. It is not, however, the only challenge.

“We also have some steep, gnarly terrain that the crews are having to manage and the hot, dry conditions.”

While more resources are arriving to help with efforts in the Okanagan, the BC Wildfire Service members have been supported by local fire departments as well as other partners.

Reminder to stay away from air tankers on lakes

Heavy equipment and air tankers are being, and Kekula says planes have struggled with boaters while trying to pick up water on lakes in the past.

“We have struggled with that in the past. Absolutely it’s always a concern. Public safety everywhere is always a concern for us. We’ve got 18 helicopters assigned to this complex… [the public], they love to see the helicopters bucketing, but please stay out of their way because we need to get the water onto the fires.”

She says you can still watch them, but make sure you do it from a distance.

Last year, the service says police and conservation officer boats were deployed on some lakes to patrol and ensure boaters didn’t interfere with wildfire efforts. If someone is believed to be interfering with fire suppression efforts, the case is investigated by provincial authorities, and sometimes the RCMP. If a person is found to be interfering with efforts deliberately, they could be slapped with fines, but that is up to the enforcement branch.

Wildfires burning in the Okanagan have sent smoke throughout the area. (Courtesy BC Wildfire Service)

Transition day for crew members

Some of the people fighting the Okanagan wildfires are gearing up for a bit of a break as new staff members arrive to the area.

“Today is a bit of a transition day,” Kekula explains. “We are setting up a fire camp in Westbank and so we’re all heading there. Once everybody gets in the camp it’s really good to see everybody. We eat better, we sleep better, so moral actually goes up. It’s always good to have that, just being together all of us in the camps.”

More than 200 firefighters on loan to other provinces have also been called back to British Columbia to fight fires.

“They are going to be brought back a little early,” Chief Fire Information Officer Kevin Skrepnek told NEWS 1130 on Friday. “We expect to have them all back in the province by midway through next week. It’ll actually time out fairly nicely; they’ll be able to rest here for a few days and then that will be right as the crews that we currently have out on the line here in BC are going to need to take some time off. So we’ll be able to cycle those crews over.”

The BC Wildfire Service is also being assisted by local fire departments and other partners in their efforts. Kekula says the support is very valuable.

“When you’re working on these interface fires, it really is a team. You guys really hear it from me, but there’s a huge team behind me that is doing all of the hard work, so kudos to all of those people.”

No homes or structures have been damaged by the wildfires.

Campfire bans and what happens if you start a wildfire by accident

This is the first weekend since a campfire took effect here on the South Coast. Only Haida Gwaii and a two kilometre-wide band known as the fog zone on the west coast of Vancouver Island are exempt.

So what happens if you start a wildfire by accident? A lawyer is weighing in with some advice.

It was 15 years ago this month that a discarded cigarette sparked the devastating McClure wildfire, which burned for 75 days and scorched more than 26,000 hectares of forest and destroyed more than 80 structures.

“The upshot of it was that the whole area burned caused great damage to associated properties, and it caused damage in the millions and millions of dollars,” explains lawyer Martin Finch.

In all, 3,800 people were from the surrounding communities of McClure, Barriere, and Louis Creek were forced from their homes.

Finch warns if you cause a wildfire, the penalties can be significant. “You can be liable to pay for the damage that you have caused that was reasonably foreseeable as the result of your negligence,” he explains.
“That means that if you have caused a wildfire, you have done something negligently that would then result in the liability.”

Under the Wildfire Act, you could be subject to a fine of as high as $200,000 or two years in jail.

The South Coast campfire ban is set to last until October 19th or until conditions improve.