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WILDFIRES 2023: State of emergency declared in West Kelowna

‘It’s probably going to get worse this afternoon depending on the winds’
The BC Wildfire Service continues to respond to the McDougall Creek wildfire located 10 kilometres northwest of West Kelowna as shown in this undated handout image. (BC Wildfire Service handout photo)

A threatening wildfire has prompted a local state of emergency for the City of West Kelowna and part of the nearby Westbank First Nation as crews prepare for the “most challenging” few days of the province’s fire season.

Cliff Chapman, director of operations for the BC Wildfire Service, said at a news conference that they were seeing extreme behaviour by the McDougall Creek wildfire that is just a few kilometres away from the community.

“We rarely see that type of fire behaviour, you know, pre-breakfast time in B.C., and we’re seeing it today and we’re going to see it continue through today,” he said during a news conference on Thursday.

Ben Stewart, MLA for West Kelowna, said he woke up Thursday to find “thick debris and ash covering everything” outside his West Kelowna home. The smoke worsened as the day went on, he said.

“It’s probably going to get worse this afternoon depending on the winds,” he said in an interview.

He said he was most worried about those who live close to the fire, noting recently built schools and neighbourhoods.

“You never really think about it until all of a sudden, you know, it’s at your doorstep,” he said, adding that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if more residents were ordered to leave.

Most of the southern half of the province has been baking under a heat wave, and Chapman said the breakdown of the high-pressure ridge will bring gusty winds and dry lightning, making the next few days the most challenging yet in a record-breaking fire season.

“You couple that with the extreme drought conditions that we’ve spoken about on these availabilities over the course of the last number of months, and the conditions out in the forests are very primed to see significant fire growth and to see new fires challenge our suppression efforts,” he said.

Evacuees are being asked to register online or go to the Information Centre at Royal LePage Place.

Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma said the wildfire service has deployed “significant resources” to the fire.

“It is our hope that we don’t have to recommend that the communities go to an evacuation order but, of course, we’re also asking everyone to be prepared now,” she said.

Chapman urged B.C. residents to put together a “grab-and-go” bag and to respect any evacuation orders because the conditions are so dangerous.

“I want to stress now is not the time to not adhere to evacuation orders and alerts. The weather is going to be erratic and significant, at least it is forecast to be,” he said.

“Please listen to your local governments and provincial officials when there is an evacuation order. We urge you to please leave. We will try to get you home as soon as we can (when) this weather system passes.”

He said that storms would sweep across B.C. from the northwest to the southeast, changing wind directions quickly, and challenging pre-emptive firefighting efforts.

“Lightning is our primary ignition source for new fires, and it has been for the predominant part of this fire season, and we are anticipating a significant number of new fires across the province of B.C.,” Chapman said.

He said the highest potential impact will be in the Cariboo, Kamloops and Southeastern fire centres.

“But, the North is not out of the woods,” he said. “It is really provincially challenging, but … I think the highest potential impacts are in the southern half of the province.”

The blaze near West Kelowna was one of 14 fires of note in B.C. on Thursday, meaning they are highly visible or threatening public safety.

They are among about 370 active fires in B.C., as the province emerges from the protracted heat wave that began Sunday.

Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press