British Columbia's emergency management minister is calling for unity in the fight against the province's wildfires, as she decried people defying evacuation orders to try to defend their properties.
Doing so puts at risk the "unified strategy" for battling the worst wildfire season in the province's history, Bowinn Ma said Wednesday.
"I know that some people want to stay and fight," she said at a news conference. "I understand that, but it is also my duty to be clear about the risks to people and emergency crews. Let me be clear, our collective fight is with the wildfire. But in order to do this, our efforts need to be united."
The dispute around the handling of the fires in the Shuswap came amid progress on other fronts of B.C.'s fire fight that has forced the evacuation of more than 25,000 people.
Fire chiefs in the embattled Okanagan said Wednesday that overnight rain helped soak wildfires in West Kelowna, Kelowna and the Lake Country, raising optimism even as a clearer picture emerged of the destruction over recent days. Drenching rain was also forecast for other hard-hit areas, with up to 80 millimetres expected in some places.
But the divisions to the north in the Columbia Shuswap Regional District in the B.C. Interior were weighing on officials Wednesday.
Some residents there have been refusing to leave their properties in the face of the 410-square-kilometre Bush Creek East wildfire, which has ravaged the Shuswap, destroying buildings including the firehall at Scotch Creek.
The BC Wildfire Service said 120 wildland firefighters and 105 structural firefighters are deployed to the blaze, with helicopters flying throughout the area.
Some 11,000 people are under evacuation order in the Shuswap, including North Shuswap resident Kyle Boppre.
But Boppre said he wasn't going anywhere. He said he and others in his community have defied an evacuation order because they believed provincial wildfire crews weren’t coming to save them.
He said he used scuba diving equipment he usually uses in Shuswap Lake to help him survive as he drove near his home.
“Both sides of the road were burning and the smoke was so bad,” said Boppre. “Don't get me wrong, it was scary as hell.”
He said waiting for firefighters wasn’t an option with his home and marine business at stake, so banding together with others who stayed to fight the fires was the only option.
“It was basically, I guess what they call a firestorm," Boppre said. "We had like a fire tornado roll through our little area there on Garland Road."
Ma said the BC Wildfire Service had "opened a dialogue" to understand why some are defying the orders, but the directives carry legal weight and defiance of them must end.
She said some local residents with skills to help battle fires are being recruited now to join the wildfire fight, but others must leave.
"We have to be working together on this," said Ma. "People can't be doing their own thing. Areas under evacuation order are not safe places and when you are asked to leave you must leave immediately."
BC Wildfire Service officials, Premier David Eby and Ma have said firefighting equipment, including sprinklers and hoses, have been moved or tampered with.
Ma said that much of southern B.C. had been "lucky to receive some rain," but "we are still in a hazardous situation for wildfires throughout B.C."
"I'm happy to report in the north we've received rain, and a lot of it," said Chief Ross Kotscherofski of the North Westside fire rescue department at a different briefing on Wednesday. "This, with lower temperatures, is going to really help with mopping up this fire."
Brad Litke, a BC Wildfire Service senior operations officer, said the rain was a boon to the more than 500 firefighters battling the blazes around Lake Okanagan.
"The rain is clearly helpful," he said. "What that tends to do is help extinguish some minor spot fires. It really makes an impact on the fine fuels, that's the surface litter. That's the primary driver for spot fires."
Wednesday's forecast for the Interior included warnings of potential localized flooding and "debris flows" as rains hit the scorched landscape.
Environment Canada issued a severe thunderstorm watch late Tuesday for the Shuswap and there was heavy rain in the region Tuesday night, with Salmon Arm recording 12 millimetres of rain yesterday -- the biggest single-day total all year in the drought-parched area.
Rainfall warnings have gone into effect for the South Peace River and Upper Fraser regions, with the forests ministry saying in a high streamflow advisory that rivers are expected to "respond rapidly" and rise quickly.
It said wildfire activity "may exacerbate localized run-off" and increase the risk of debris flows in areas burned by fires, although widespread flooding isn't expected.
West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund said Wednesday that a total of 84 properties were partially or totally damaged in West Kelowna and the Westbank First Nation.
Kotscherofski said 90 properties in his firefighting region were damaged or destroyed, although some, including the Lake Okanagan Resort, consist of multiple structures.
The total of 174 is in the ballpark of Tuesday's estimate of up to 200 properties. Wednesday's tally did not include the handful of homes thought to have been damaged or destroyed in Kelowna.
"I'm feeling some optimism based on the weather," said Brolund. "My priority now becomes returning people to their homes. I ask for your continued patience."
He said that with the clearing of smoke over Lake Okanagan, a clearer picture of the destruction in West Kelowna has become visible.
"It does look pretty shocking,” he said.
He said overnight firefighting was "sporadic and spotty" and no more properties were damaged.
A website was due to be launched Wednesday to let homeowners in West Kelowna, Westbank First Nation and the Central Okanagan Regional District learn if their properties have been damaged or destroyed, municipal officials said at the briefing.
"In a perfect world our preference, without question, would be to personally call every single homeowner and be with them when they receive what is probably the worst news they have ever received," said Sally Ginter, Central Okanagan Regional District chief administrative officer.
"But today we live in a day of social media and photos and information that is flying around faster than we can ever begin to think we can manage," she said.
The Columbia Shuswap Regional District has meanwhile been warning of misinformation being spread online.
It said Tuesday it had been made aware of emails and social media posts that said people do not need a permit to go into evacuation order areas, but clarified that this information is "completely false" and a permit is required.
This comes after federal and provincial officials publicly urged social media company Meta to reinstate access to Canadian news on its platforms, including Facebook and Instagram, so residents have easy access to accurate and up-to-date information amid the province's ongoing wildfire crisis.
The BC Wildfire Service website said there are 379 fires burning across the province, including 155 that are out of control and 14 "wildfires of note" that are highly visible or pose a threat to people or property. It says seven new fires were detected in the past 24 hours.
Ma said there are now 25,000 people under evacuation order in B.C. and 37,000 people on evacuation alert.
— with files from Darryl Greer
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 23, 2023.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press