Cranbrook fire evacuees go home to get their most valuable possessions

CAROL HARRINGTON

CRANBROOK, B.C. (CP) - Dozens of fire evacuees who were temporarily allowed to go back home Saturday fetched their prized possessions - golf clubs, photographs and even a bottle of champagne.

Nearby Munroe Lake residents who were forced to flee a wildfire last Monday were escorted to their 25 homes so they could check the food in their refrigerators and freezers because electricity has been off for days.

After visiting their homes for about an hour, residents who only had minutes notice last week to evacuate, said they had to throw out most of their spoiled food.

"We've got nothing left in our fridges," said Frank Spring, who had to toss out bags of food from his four refrigerators at the family's lake home.

"It's a mess, there's trees all over and branches, the backyard is all burned up," said Spring, who grabbed a bottle of champagne to bring back to his Cranbrook hotel room.

"But I feel better after going out there and checking on things."

For the past few days, fire crews have been busy clearing dangerous trees and power lines in the evacuated areas, about 15 kilometres southwest of Cranbrook.

With little wind on their side Saturday, about 320 forest firefighters made headway on the uncontained, uncontrolled Lamb Creek fire by doing a small fireburn at the 106-square-kilometre blaze.

"There's no appreciable change on the natural fire ...and we plan to do more burnouts today," Bob Pfannenschmidt, a B.C. Forest information officer, said Saturday of firefighters burning the tinder dry forest floor because the crisp pine needles and branches too often fuel the fire.

"Hopefully, the fire won't come around on us," he added.

Almost 20 helicopters were buzzing the skies, dropping chemical retardant and water on the fire's hot spots. There are also 150 structural firefighters who have travelled from across the province and Alberta to try to protect homes and business with roof sprinklers and gel retardant.

Light winds throughout the area have allowed firefighters to make progress on the fire in the past few days.

"Tomorrow will be another day and the winds may be coming up from the southeast," Pfannenschmidt warned.

The B.C. government has ordered campers and hikers out of 40 provincial parks and the backcountry for the next two weeks, hoping the forest will get a reprieve from fires.

Premier Gordon Campbell has also extended the provincewide state of emergency, declared Aug. 2, for another two weeks.

"This extraordinary measure is unfortunate but vital," Campbell said Friday in a statement.

"This is the driest summer in B.C. history and, with nearly 2,200 fires so far this fire season, we must remain vigilant about maintaining public safety as our top priority."

The ban covers one-third of the lower province, stretching from Vancouver Island to Alberta.

If caught in a restricted area, violators could be slapped with fines of up to $10,000 and six months in jail

RCMP said it's impossible to police all of the forest, but available officers will be watching out for people who ignore the ban.

"We certainly can't man all the logging roads throughout the province, I don't even think they've all been properly mapped out, but we're going to do what we can with what we have," said Staff Sgt. Grant Learned.

There are now about 800 fires burning in the B.C. Interior.

Meanwhile, all 18 evacuees were allowed back into their homes as fire crews gained the upper hand on the Plumbob Mountain fire 35 kilometres east of Cranbrook.

In Kelowna, almost all 300 remaining evacuees of the Okanagan Mountain fire near the city went back home Saturday, leaving about 70 acreage residents still out.

"We're in pretty good shape," said Carol Suhan of the emergency operations centre in Kelowna.

"The water-boil order has been lifted and we're getting life pretty much back to normal," she added.

One week ago, some 30,000 Kelowna and area residents were chased out of their homes by a ferocious firestorm that razed more than 230 homes and gobbled 200 square kilometres of land.

All of the city's schools are intact, even though five schools were in the evacuation zone, allowing students to begin the new school year on schedule.

Officials are urging the public to stay out of all fire-affected areas because of unstable trees, which could quietly topple without warning.

Many trees that appear to be healthy and undamaged could be burning from the roots through the centre of the trunk, causing them to quickly tumble. Also, some tree roots are burning half a metre below ground, prompting hot spots to flare.

When the Kelowna-area fire was 70 per cent contained, some B.C. fire crews drove their pumper fire trucks and bush buggies to Cranbroook to help with the fire that had almost doubled in size last Wednesday night.

About 850 residents south of Cranbrook have received evacuation notices, which means they could be told to leave at a moment's notice. No one living within the city limits has been evacuated or received a notice, Duczek said.

In Kelowna, some residents who lost their homes are suggesting that some housing rents are twice as much as they were just weeks earlier.

One furnished house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms is listed at $2,500 a month, not including utilities. The owner of that house said it's a case of supply and demand.

The province, which had budgeted about $54 million to pay for forest fire costs this fiscal year, said the effort so far has cost taxpayers about $200 million, with daily costs fluctuating.

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/30/2003 23:04 EST