KEREMEOS, BC – Changing wind patterns are keeping communities on edge in British Columbia’s southern Okanagan, where an out-of-control wildfire forced the village of Olalla to be evacuated and residents were told from the vicinity of Keremeos to prepare to leave.
Winds in the area are known for their unpredictability, prompting firefighters and emergency officials to prepare for the worst, Tim Roberts, the area’s regional director-elect, said Friday.
“We’re always at risk from mother nature, so it’s always good to be proactive, be prepared for the worst and hope for the best,” he said in an interview.
He said that the indigenous name of Keremeos was “valley of the three winds, so you can tell, the winds change every hour.”
But after 50 km/h gusts from the north and south on Thursday night, conditions turned favorable on Friday and winds died down, allowing firefighters to try to stop the advance of the wildfire that was approaching Olala.
“It hasn’t been such a challenging day so far, which is obviously fantastic,” said Bryan Zandberg, a spokesman for the BC Wildfire Service.
He said firefighters worked to build buffer zones on the outskirts of Olalla, located about 25 miles southeast of Penticton.
“Again, we are focusing on Olalla and structural protection,” Zandberg said.
He said some 400 firefighters were battling the 51-square-kilometre Keremeos Creek fire, which forced the complete evacuation of Olalla.
The Okanagan-Similkameen Regional District said nearly 550 homes were under evacuation order as of Friday afternoon due to the unpredictable nature of the fire.
More than 1,000 other properties are on evacuation alert, including those in the nearby town of Keremeos.
Much of the wildfire was concentrated in steep, mountainous terrain on Friday, and was less threatening to Olalla’s estimated 400 properties, but that could change, Roberts said.
“It’s a very unpredictable fire with respect to the winds and the terrain,” he said. “You’re looking at very steep slopes, cliffs, heavy timber bunched up on the side of the mountain.”
Evacuation orders and warnings were issued Thursday night by the Okanagan-Similkameen Regional District as winds caused the wildfire to break out in a “troublesome corner,” Zandberg said.
“What we were experiencing was quite challenging. Things got pretty rough throughout 3A,” Zandberg said during a briefing on Friday.
Winds have been pushing the flames downhill toward communities, forcing the closure of Highway 3A, which runs through Olalla and Keremeos.
The fire is one of 146 the BC Forest Fire Service reported over the past week, though new fires have tapered off in the past two days due to slightly cooler and calmer conditions.
Environment Canada is forecasting a return to temperatures in the 30s this week, with gusty winds that could complicate firefighting efforts, but there is no sign of the thunderstorms that have sparked many recent wildfires.
The BC Forest Fire Service said this week that the province is expected to experience sustained wildfire activity in August and September, especially in the southern regions, with a long-term forecast of hot and dry weather.
The bushfire service said six fires are currently classified as major wildfires, but overnight rain helped crews contain two of them.
Wildfire service spokeswoman Roslyn Johnson said 10 millimeters of rain soaked the three square kilometer fire burning in grasslands north of Kamloops, reducing it to a smoldering flame.
The roughly 4-square-mile fire not far from Pavilion near Lillooet also received about 0.6 inches of rain on Thursday, which the bushfire service said would put out the flames through at least Tuesday.
Other fires of note include a 14-square-mile blaze west of Lytton, where the bushfire service said cooler weather has “diminished” its activity.
The wildfire service said Friday night that the Weasel Creek wildfire, which was discovered on July 30 northeast of Eureka, Mont., crossed the Canadian border.
He said the Canadian portion of the fire covered about 2.5 square miles in Flathead Valley, west of Frozen Lake.
Another fire at the South East Fire Center grew after breaking into inaccessible terrain south of Cranbrook, but the other, south of Kaslo, has seen little change in the past day.
— By Dirk Meissner in Victory
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 5, 2022.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION