Fires pushes 20,000 from homes in Kelowna suburbs but some won't go

TIFFANY CRAWFORD AND CAROL HARRINGTON

KELOWNA, B.C. (CP) - Police with bullhorns ordered a staggering 20,000 people to leave their homes in the southern suburbs of this Okanagan city Friday night as fast-moving flames moved ever closer.

It brought the total number of evacuees driven out by the Okanagan Mountain Park fire to 30,000, said statement issued late Friday by the regional district.

But no amount of urging was going to convince Barb Roth to leave her home in the rapidly emptying Mission neighbourhood, despite the sight of a house burning just blocks away.

"They threatened to handcuff and drag me out of here," said Roth. "But we're not going to burn here."

As Roth spoke and menacing flames flickered within eyesight, two children splashed in her pool.

The newly evacuated neighbourhoods in southern Kelowna were located about 15 kilometres from the downtown, Roth estimated.

Police cruisers drove through the neighbourhood, officers shouting through a bullhorn that people should leave their homes immediately.

New evacuees, some of them shaking and speechless, huddled outside one of two reception centres in downtown Kelowna where, just a night earlier, some 7,000 were told to register. It was earlier reported 10,000 were evacuated Thursday night, but officials later revised the figures.

Kelowna, a city of 100,000, was blanketed with ash, while lightning flashing in clouds of smoke gave the impression of mini-explosions.

Even from the downtown, flames could be seen shooting from a sprawling hillside.

"It's havoc," said Larry Friesen, who went to a reception centre with his wife and two teenaged sons. "They banged on the door and said, 'you've got to get out.'*"

One weeping woman said she'd had to leave her dog behind.

"My dog is still in my house," said Amy Marsden, 23. "I tried to get her but they wouldn't let me."

The regional district was pleading with residents Friday night to stay off their telephone lines, as circuits were being overloaded and emergency workers could access free lines.

"The fire is moving very aggressively," Darron Campbell, a fire information officer, said Friday night. "Crews are doing what they can to put fire controls lines in place to try and stay in front of it but the winds are blowing strong right now."

He said winds of up to 70 kilometres an hour were forecasted.

"That's making things difficult out there," he said.

Only hours before the new evacuation order was issued, Federal Defence Minister John McCallum touched down at the Kelowna airport, telling reporters he wanted to "express the sympathy, the solidarity of the federal government to the people of British Columbia at this very difficult time."

McCallum rejected criticism that the federal government has paid little attention to the horrific fires gobbling up western Canadian forests and instead paid much attention and resources to the blackout in eastern Canada.

"These things were not in competition," he said.

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell took an aerial tour of major fires ravaging the southern B.C. Interior earlier Friday.

He said he was lost for words to describe the destructive, powerful fires that have so far devoured an area a third of the size of Prince Edward Island in his province.

"I continue to be struck by the size, the magnitude, the scale and I can't find the words to describe it," he said after an aerial tour of major fires ravaging the southern B.C. interior on Friday.

"The smoke just goes on and on. And just the scale, I wish I could describe it to people."

Campbell made the comments as a new fire near Okanagan Falls sparked to life, closing Highway 97 between Okanagan Falls and Penticton, cut power in the area and prompted the evacuation of Vaseaux Lake's day-use area.

Water bombers were already on their way to the fire near the lake, 20 kilometres south of Penticton, estimated at 50 hectares and growing late Friday afternoon, said fire officials.

Officials estimated Friday morning that 25 homes were destroyed by the fire but the figure was later reduced to 15 houses.

Evacuee Amanda Parker, 23, fled a wall of fire near Kelowna's east district with her husband and two small children Thursday.

"It might just wipe us out," said Parker on Friday afternoon."To start over again, it will be rough but we just might have to do it."

"We got a pass to go back up there today for a few hours to get some things and it was like a barren desert. There was nobody around."

Kelowna fire chief Gerry Zimmermann said firefighters have never dealt with these types of fire conditions before.

"This is something that we've never seen before," Zimmermann.

"We were in the middle of changing crews and (the fire) turned around so quick and we had a run," said Zimmermann, holding back tears. "We've had crews in there for 24-26 hours."

Several firefighters in south Kelowna were reportedly isolated by flames late Friday afternoon and had to be rescued by boat on Okanagan Lake.

The fire, sparked by a lightning strike last Saturday, grew to an estimated 170 square kilometres by Friday.

Kathy Fahey said she got scared watching a red fireball work its way down the canyon beside her Kelowna home just before her family was evacuated late Thursday night.

"Reality hit too close to home for a lot of people," she said Friday. "I saw flames, embers flickering in the dark," she said, describing the embers like fireflies. "It's bizarre!"

About 1,000 were evacuated near Chase, 50 kilometres east of Kamloops, and hundreds remain out of their homes from month-old fires north of Kamloops.

Earlier this month, the McLure-Barriere fire incinerated the village of Louis Creek, including dozens of houses and mobile homes, and a sawmill that was the area's major employer.

Campbell, who declared a provincial state of emergency Aug., 2, toured the devastated region by air Friday for the second time in a month, accompanied by Vancouver MP Stephen Owen, minister responsible for Western Diversification.

"We don't want any breezes and we'd like to get a break from Mother Nature if we possibly can," he said. "Unfortunately she's not listening to our pleas at this point." Campbell said he was not visiting the stricken area to offer a magic solution but to support the professionals dealing with the emergency.

"I want to be there for them when they need me," he said. "I want citizens to know we're there for them as much as we can be in ways that will give them support and comfort as they go through what must be an incredibly wrenching time for everyone."

White ash blanketed the street outside the Kelowna fire hall Friday morning, while helicopters flew overhead and about a dozen tired firefighters were sleeping on the grass.

Among the evacuees Thursday night was Sindi Hawkins, the B.C. health planning minister, said Campbell.

Thick smoke choked Kelowna's 100,000 residents and at times obscured the view of Okanagan Lake.

More than 3,000 firefighters from B.C. and elsewhere in Canada were battling more than 825 fires in the province.

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/23/2003 2:04 EST