CAROL HARRINGTON

KELOWNA, B.C. (CP) - More than 200 homes have been torched as a relentless wildfire advanced into the southern suburbs of this Okanagan city.

"Last night was probably the roughest night in Kelowna firefighting history I would say," city fire Chief Gerry Zimmerman told a media briefing Saturday. "We got hammered pretty good." "These losses are staggering," said Zimmerman, emphasizing that the number of lost homes was only preliminary and that the tally is likely to change.

The destructive path of the blaze was quirkily selective. It wiped out almost an entire street in an upscale neighbourhood but a few random homes were left intact.

Signs bearing family names were unscathed, propped in front of homes that were completely razed. A garden of colourful flowers untouched by the flames adorned a black, flattened house, and the charred wreckage of vehicles sat on pristine brick driveways.

The fire chief said an aerial survey was being conducted Saturday and that photographs would be posted so that homeowners could determine if their houses had survived the inferno.

But that was small consolation for anxious residents awaiting word if their homes remained standing. Evacuees anxiously read newspapers and closely followed radio and television reports for any news about whether the blaze had vaulted into their neighbourhoods.

"It's a little disconcerting, to say the least," said Ihor Sychylo, an advertising consultant who hadn't seen the south Kelowna house he evacuated Friday night.

"It's so frustrating, that you can't get in and see for yourself."

Officials said the same dire weather conditions - tinder-dry and with high, strong winds - were again expected to prevail Saturday, raising the odds of further property losses. But by early evening, firefighters were holding their lines and the fire had not readvanced into the city's suburban perimter.

However, some firefighters, helicopters and water bombers had to be diverted from the main blaze to contain a small spot fire that had broken out on the other side of Okanagan Lake in a log storage yard.

Kelowna officials estimated Saturday about 26,000 people had already been rousted from homes in the path of the fire, while another 15,000 were on alert to be ready to flee at a moment's notice.

Almost one-third of the population of this picturesque Okanagan city of about 100,000 now has been displaced.

Fire Chief Zimmerman said three firefighters were among those who lost their homes.

"We're not used to losing things," said the fire chief, holding back tears. We don't want to lose a shed, let alone a house, and when we start losing houses in this number it has a bad effect on our guys."

The chief said psychologists have been brought in to talk to firefighters who have lost everything or are struggling to cope with the stress of battling the most devastating wildfire in recent B.C. history.

"They were coming off the (fire) line and we had some pretty scared kids," he said. "The senior guys thought they weren't going to get out."

Evacuees who couldn't take refuge with friends or relatives slept in their vehicles, in churches and in a local hockey arena.

"I was tired enough, I could have slept on my head," said Barry Snider, who along with his wife and two teenage children were evacuated after midnight Saturday.

Sniders left their home as smoke billowed and an orange glow from the fire lit their neighbourhood.

Neil Madsen said he saw tall trees flickering like candles and several houses engulfed in flames when his family was evacuated from their acreage at about 2:15 a.m.

"We normally have a million-dollar view and that view was horrifyingly surreal early this morning," said Madsen, who slept on the bare floor at the Trinity Baptist Church with his wife, Judy, and two young children.

At dusk Friday night, police with bullhorns drove through suburban neighbourhoods, ordering an estimated 20,000 from their homes.

Evacuees were told to report to downtown reception centres, where, only a day earlier, several thousand other Kelowna residents were sent the previous night.

New evacuees, some of them shaking and speechless, huddled outside one of two downtown reception centres.

Kelowna was blanketed with ash, while lightning flashes in clouds of smoke gave the impression of small explosions.

Even from the downtown area, 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 teenage sons. "They banged on the door and said, 'You've got to get out."

One weeping woman said she 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 pleading with residents to stay off their telephone lines, as circuits were being overloaded, so 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."

Winds of up to 80 kilometres an hour were recorded that pushed the fire at a rate of 100 metres a minute.

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

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, has grown to more than an estimated 190 square kilometres.

Hundreds of firefighters have flocked to this picturesque city to help, backed by hundreds of military personnel.

Provincial and federal politicians have visited the area, many taking aerial tours to see firsthand the destruction caused by 825 fires ravaging the B.C. Interior.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien is to tour the Kelowa fire scene on Sunday, interrupting a visit to the North.

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell declared a provincial state of emergency Aug. 2.

In a statement Saturday, Campbell offered sympathy to all who had lost their homes and property.

"Government will do what it must to provide support and care for those whose homes, treasures and businesses have been affected by these fires," Campbell said.

"We will continue to work with federal, regional and local governments to help restore the quality of life for all who have lost their homes and possessions."

About 1,000 others 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.

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/23/2003 22:17 EST