Tales of drama emerge in Canadian forest fires

By Allan Dowd

KELOWNA, British Columbia, Aug 26 (Reuters) - Crews made slow but steady progress on Tuesday against a fire that destroyed 244 homes in Kelowna, British Columbia, as tales emerged of firefighter heroism at the height of the firestorm.

An estimated 16,000 Kelowna residents are still evacuated from their homes and 25,000 people are on high alert because of the blaze, which is still out of control south of the city.

Officials warned that the war against the 20,000 hectare Okanagan Mountain fire was far from over, but two days of calmer winds have given people time to think about how dangerous the blaze has been.

Tracy Melnyk and other firefighters were working building a containment on the edge of the fire Friday when a sudden gust of wind pushed the flames from the ground and into the tops of trees, some of which began exploding from the heat.

"It moved so fast... there was a blanket of smoke, and then you started seeing the flames. They were jumping across the road," Melnyk, 40, a four-year veteran of the department recalled.

About 20 people retreated to a safer area. Surrounded by the blaze they debated making a run through the flames to a nearby lake, but a wind change allowed a commanding officer to find an escape route down a road.

"It was the longest 20 to 25 minutes of my life," said Melnyk, who returned to the fire lines a day after the incident.

Fire Chief Gerry Zimmermann said he feared the worst as he heard about the men's plight on the radio. "I honesty believed we were going to lose somebody," he said.

The firestorm that trapped the crew also forced the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to evacuate 20,000 Kelowna residents in less than four hours, the largest such evacuation in the history of the Mounties.

But there has been no loss of life in this fire, or in any of the others that have swept through remote parts of Canada's most western provinces in this season of wildfires that are bigger and more dangerous than usual.

Officials say the morale of firefighters who lost their homes has rebounded due to the outpouring of support from local residents. Crews have come from around the province to fight the fire along with military personnel.

Jean-Yves Jacob, a firefighter from Armstrong, British Columbia, was blackened from ash and exhausted as he dug out the smoldering roots of a tree, but said he proud to be fighting a "once of a lifetime" fire.

"This is what we train for, the big show," Jacob said.

The Okanagan Mountain fire is one of eight major blazes burning in the southern interior region of British Columbia, which is suffering its worst forest fire season in decades.

As well as the destruction of homes, some of them in upmarket areas, the fire season has had a heavy economic impact on British Columbia, keeping the forest industry from felling trees and discouraging tourists.

Logging companies say it will take some heavy rainfall before the tinder-dry forests are safe enough for crews to work.

08/26/03 17:32 ET