Canadian Forest Fires Force More Evacuations

September 9, 2003 - 0:0
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Nearly 1,000 people in western Canada were forced from their homes in the pre-dawn dark on Sunday as wind threatened to push a wildfire into the outskirts of Kelowna, British Columbia, for the second time in less than three weeks.

The order increased the number of Kelowna residents evacuated to an estimated 4,230 people, and firefighters said that without rain there was little they could do against the blaze that has also ravaged a Canadian historic landmark.

The Okanagan Mountain Fire grew by 2,470 acres Saturday to 61,750 acres and more than 900 personnel fighting the blaze with the aid of water-bombing aircraft were braced for more trouble on Sunday from uncooperative weather.

The winds also fanned a forest fire near Kamloops, British Columbia, forcing the evacuation late on Saturday of an estimated 750 people from a rural area including staff and guests at the Sun Peaks Ski Resort, which has been using its snow-making equipment in the battle.

British Columbia has been hit by its worst forest fire season in decades, and dry conditions have allowed many blazes including those near Kelowna and Kamloops to burn out of control since mid-August.

No deaths have been caused by the Okanagan Mountain fire near Kelowna, but more than 230 homes were destroyed in August in the rural outskirts of the city of more than 90,000 people about 185 miles east of Vancouver.

For most of the evacuated residents, it was the second time they had to flee in less than three weeks, and most were packed and ready to leave when police went knocking on doors in the middle of the night.

"Looking up at the sky and feeling the wind I think everyone was prepared for what was to come," said Constable Heather Macdonald of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

In addition to threatening Kelowna, the fire has destroyed or damaged all but four of 18 historic railway trestle bridges that are now part of a hiking and biking trail system that draws tourists from around the world.

Crews launched a massive effort with water-bombing aircraft to save the remaining nine wood and steel structures built by the Kettle Valley Railway in the early 1900s, but warn it will likely not be enough to save them.

More than 600 fires were burning in British Columbia on Sunday. Most were small and not threatening communities, but a Forest Service spokesman said lightning passing through the southeastern portion of the province would likely spark new blazes.

Sunday's evacuation in Kelowna had an unexpected benefit for police when they discovered a marijuana-growing operation with 800 pot plants in one home, whose occupants had apparently fled before the official order to get out was issued.