Wildfire tears through B.C. community, destroying homes and forcing hundreds of evacuations

Another British Columbia community has been devastated by a raging wildfire and more could be at risk from a blaze between Kamloops and Vernon in the province’s southern Interior.

As of Friday morning, the White Rock Lake wildfire is an estimated 450 square kilometres in size, and the B.C. Wildfire Service says it is classified as out of control. Crews worked through the night to try to suppress the fire.

Ken Gillis, chair of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, says he has been advised that damage is extensive in the community of Monte Lake and through the nearby Paxton Valley.

“In all likelihood the majority of the community has been wiped out by this fire,” Gillis told CBC Daybreak Kamloops host Shelley Joyce. 

He said the general store, one of the campgrounds and a number of residences have been destroyed.

Gillis expects a more thorough assessment will be done later today.

The 325-square kilometre White Rock lake wildfire jumped Highway 97 about 40 kilometres southeast of Kamloops late Thursday.

“I understand from B.C. wildfire that this fire moved 18 kilometres in a matter of eight hours,” Gillis told the Canadian Press.

“I’ve talked to a number of firefighters who said this year’s fires are behaving in a manner that they have never seen before. They’re just exceedingly aggressive and it’s almost impossible to get ahead of them.”

Thousands of people were ordered to either evacuate their properties or prepare to evacuate as the wildfire spread.

The B.C. Wildfire Service says some people, however, chose not to leave when put under an evacuation order, which affected fire suppression efforts as crews had to be redirected to tactical evacuations. 

“We are imploring people to prepare once you get the evacuation alert. Evacuation alerts are issued for a reason,” Gillis said. 

“When the evacuation order comes, for goodness sake, get out.”

As of 11:30 p.m. PT Thursday, evacuation orders — in which residents must leave immediately — were in place for:

  • Over 600 properties in the Westwold, Monte Lake, Falkland and the Cedar Hill areas.
  • 373 properties in the vicinity of Pritchard.
  • 544 properties under the jurisdiction of the Central Okanagan Regional District, including all properties in Westshore Estates.
  • Properties in the Six Mile-Nashwito area and Newport area for the Okanagan Indian Band.

Evacuation alerts — in which residents must be ready to leave at a moment’s notice — have been issued for:

  • 2,500 properties in Kamloops’ Campbell Creek, Barnhartvale and Dallas neighbourhoods, southeast of the city’s downtown core.
  • 117 properties near Highway 1 and the Kamloops city limits.
  • 2,400 properties in the Central Okanagan Regional District, between Westshore Estates and Bear Forest Service Road. 

WATCH | Evacuee says ‘everything is gone’:

A swift-moving wildfire burning between Kamloops and Vernon, B.C., has destroyed homes near Monte Lake, says one resident. ‘My house was on fire when I left,’ said Stephanie Gamache. (Photo/Stephanie Gamache) 0:47

Joe Hemmskerk, a farmer from Westwold, said the hill behind his property was smouldering on Friday morning.

He visited his dam at Monte Lake, which is still intact, but he could see the damage in the rest of the area. He estimates about two-thirds of the Monte Lake community was burned.

“There’s power lines all over the road, there’s trees all over the road, there’s hay barns burned, there’s bales burning in one field,” Hemmskerk said. “There’s homes that are not shot, but there’s just … it’s ugly.

“I feel for the people that lost everything.”

As other ranchers in the area evacuated, Greg Sokliuk said he and his partner had to tie livestock to their vehicles and drive slowly to get them to walk out, because there was no time to get trailers loaded up. Others had to cut fences and let animals go free to escape the fire.

“We could watch the clouds and the smoke plume basically move within hours, it doubled its length towards the lake,” he said.

Sokliuk said he’s been preparing to evacuate since mid-July. The heat wave and drought in southern B.C., in his experience, meant this summer was going to be a bad fire season.

“At this point we don’t feel safe anywhere.”

Highway 97 has been closed between Salmon River Road and Monte Creek and Westside Road is also closed in both directions between Pinecrest Road and Six Mile Creek Road.

Forecast not favourable

A chance of showers in the area is forecast through the weekend, along with slightly cooler temperatures. However, that comes with more wind, which could create more problems for firefighters.

An official with the B.C. Wildfire Service has confirmed further growth of the blaze is expected and a statement from the service says winds gusting up to 40 km/h are expected through the day.

The White Rock Lake wildfire northwest of Vernon sends large clouds of smoke into the sky on Aug. 1. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

Nearly 300 fires burning in B.C.

The July Mountain wildfire grew overnight and jumped the Coquihalla highway, which connects the Lower Mainland to the Interior, on Thursday.

It originated on the south side of the road, about 45 kilometres southwest of Merritt, and has now spread to the east side, according to the B.C. Wildfire Service. It is an estimated 20 square kilometres in size. 

Officials say the fire is visible from the highway, and a travel advisory is in effect for 21.6 kilometres of road between exits 228 and 250. The road remains open, but visibility is low due to smoke and stopping is not allowed in that area.

Twenty-five properties in the area have been on evacuation order since July 20. 

Nearly 300 wildfires are currently burning in B.C., the largest of which is the Sparks Lake wildfire north of Kamloops. That fire currently covers 685 square kilometres. 

More than 1,400 wildfires have been sparked since April 1 in B.C., burning about 5,830 square kilometres of land. 

Over half of this year’s fires are suspected to have been caused by lightning. 

The provincial government says there are 3,650 personnel involved in wildfire fighting efforts provincewide, including 610 firefighters from out of province. 

About 214 helicopters and planes are being used to support ground crews.

Anyone placed under an evacuation order should leave the area immediately. 

Evacuation centres have been set up throughout the province to assist anyone evacuating from a community under threat from a wildfire. To find the centre closest to you, visit the Emergency Management B.C. website.

Evacuees are encouraged to register with Emergency Support Services online, whether or not they access services at an evacuation centre.

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