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Most B.C. wildfire travel restrictions to end at midnight as damage tallies rise

A travel ban intended to free up accommodations in parts of British Columbia hardest-hit by raging wildfires will largely lift by day's end, provincial officials said Tuesday as those in affected communities began getting a clearer sense of the damage.
Premier David Eby speaks to media following a tour of the Tselletkwe Lodge in Kamloops, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

A travel ban intended to free up accommodations in parts of British Columbia hardest-hit by raging wildfires will largely lift by day's end, provincial officials said Tuesday as those in affected communities began getting a clearer sense of the damage wrought by the blazes.

The travel ban, intended to ensure camp grounds and hotel rooms were available for evacuees and firefighters, is set to lift at midnight in most locales but will remain in place in and around West Kelowna, where local fire officials began providing estimates of the number of buildings destroyed in recent days. 

B.C. declared a state of emergency last week due to the wildfires and the travel order took effect on Saturday for many communities, including Kelowna, Penticton, Vernon and Kamloops.

Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma said Tuesday non-essential travel to West Kelowna continues to be restricted and people are being urged to stay away from the Lake Country and Shuswap areas.

Evacuation orders remain in place affecting an estimated 27,000 people.

Ma said the province will work with local governments and First Nations to place evacuees in the accommodations that are now available.

She urged those travelling in the province to avoid fire-affected communities and respect evacuation orders and alerts.

A more complete picture of the wildfires' destructive impact in the Kelowna area began coming into focus on Tuesday, with estimates now nearing 200 structures lost, but no reports of deaths.

West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund said the damage toll so far includes fewer than 70 structures in West Kelowna and less than 20 on Westbank First Nation lands.

Chief Ross Kotscherofski, of the North Westside fire rescue department, estimated about 100 structures were lost in his region near West Kelowna, especially in the Trader's Cove and Okanagan Lake Resort areas.

"I can report we have less than 100 (losses) at this time," he said. "I am unable to report specifics. This is just going from what I've seen when I drive up and down the road everyday."

Kelowna Fire Department Chief Travis Whiting said the wildfire destroyed three homes and two outbuildings on four properties in the city, while Lake Country Fire Chief Darren Lee said three homes have been lost in his community and an undetermined number of outbuildings.

"I really am beginning to feel like we're beginning to turn the corner on this fire, and a major measure of that was the rescinding of some evacuation orders that were rescinded to alerts," Brolund said.

The Kelowna area was still covered in a haze of thick smoke on Tuesday, preventing residents from getting a clearer image of the fire's wrath, but Brolund said clear skies are in the weather forecast.

"The smoke is going to lift today," he said. "The mountains around our community are going to look different. We haven't seen them since the fire and it might be pretty dramatic to start to see what we've lost out there."

The news was less encouraging elsewhere. Heavy smoke from a wildfire in the Shuswap Lake region east of Kamloops prevented firefighters from mounting an aerial assault on the blaze that destroyed an undetermined number of properties in Scotch Creek, Celista and other North Shuswap areas.

Derek Sutherland, an emergency operations centre team leader with the Columbia Shuswap Regional District, said the Bush Creek East wildfire has forced the evacuation of 11,000 people from the area and destroyed properties, including the firehall at Scotch Creek.

"It is our priority to get people back to their homes as soon as we possibly can," he said during a virtual update.

Sutherland confirmed some area residents have stayed home to protect their properties rather than follow evacuation orders.

"We have had issues with people choosing to stay and defend in the area," he said. "We would ask all people, please evacuate when there is an evacuation order in place."

Sutherland also asked people not to remove firefighting equipment, including sprinklers and water pumps, placed in the area by BC Wildfire Service crews.

Premier David Eby said earlier this week "tampering" with firefighting equipment hampers firefighters in their potentially life-saving work.

"It is not a light request from the wildfire service when they ask you to leave," said Eby, who toured fire-damaged areas Tuesday. "It's to save your life."

The premier spent Tuesday in the southern Interior wildfire zones with two of his cabinet ministers and Harjit Sajjan, Canada's minister of emergency preparedness.

Eby said the goal of the visit was to reassure people the B.C. government will be there to help them rebuild once the crisis has passed, but also to get information from the front line about what communities need.

He stopped Tuesday at an evacuation centre in Kamloops at the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc Nation, where he spoke with those who have fled the wildfires.

"I have seen first hand the stress people are under, the anxiety people are feeling," Eby said. "A gentleman shared with me images of how close his home came to burning down in the Scotch Creek area."

He said he heard another account of one man forced to hide under a bridge in the Shuswap Lake area and wait to be rescued by a passing boat.

At an afternoon news conference at West Kelowna, Eby said he understood the concerns of people affected by the wildfires.

"I know there's a huge amount of stress and frustration for families who've been asked to leave their homes," he said. "People who still don't know whether or not their home is standing. This is such an awful time for so many people."

Brolund said the heavy urban disaster Canada Task Force 1 team completed a specialized search of wildfire-stricken areas in West Kelowna and found no signs that anyone died.

He said he was not aware of any outstanding missing persons, a development he described as "very encouraging news."

Brolund said firefighters have also been heartened by the praise of local residents who have been viewing their firefighting efforts through security cameras installed at their front doors.

"Often you've talked back to us through your doorbell cams and told us that we're doing a good job," he said.

There are more than 27,000 people under evacuation orders across the province and more than 35,000 on evacuation alert due to several blazes, including the 110-square-kilometre McDougall Creek wildfire affecting West Kelowna, Kelowna and Lake Country.

The BC Wildfire Service said 100 firefighters from Mexico were expected to arrive in the province on Tuesday, and another 200 from South Africa by the end of the week.

Brad Litke with the BC Wildfire Service said the McDougall Creek wildfire in West Kelowna is currently estimated at 120 square kilometres.

He said the fire in the City of Kelowna is estimated at nearly eight square kilometres and the one burning in the District of Lake Country is nearly four square kilometres.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 22, 2023.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press