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‘Like a hurricane’: West Kelowna fire chief recounts devastation

The McDougall Creek wildfire ripped through the community on Aug. 18
The McDougall Creek wildfire burns on the mountainside above a lakefront home, in West Kelowna, B.C., on Friday, August 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund had several stories to tell of the devastating damage caused by the McDougall Creek wildfire.

“In going through these neighbourhoods we’re finding that addresses aren’t on the buildings,” he said during a regional wildfire update Monday (Aug. 21). “In some cases, the buildings are gone. In some cases, the street signs are melted. In some cases, the roads are damaged. We need to resolve that first.”

Brolund added that in the Upper Bear Creek Road neighbourhood, his crews reported that it looked like a hurricane had gone through the area.

“Trees were ripped out by their roots. The force that it takes to do that is incredible. This is what we’re seeing in neighbourhoods.”

He said many property owners will eventually return home to find their yards in disarray.

“It’s because firefighters have gone through and done the fire smart work at the last minute. I drove down my street and six of my neighbours in a row had straw mats at their front door. The firefighters tossed them all out in the street. That’s the kind of work that’s being done out there to protect your homes.”

Brolund said the process of assessing the damage and returning people to their neighbourhoods will take some time, and added that his department wants to ensure property owners are given factual information and are not sent back into an area that isn’t safe.

“I know that people want to know information and I know that people want to go home. We are going to take a systematic approach to both of those. We’re gonna do it right.”

The difficult task of assessing property damage resulting from the three wildfires, still burning in the Central Okanagan, has begun.

The McDougall Creek, Walroy Lake and Clarke Creek fires are now collectively called the Grouse Complex by BC Wildfire Service (BCWS).

At least 50 structures have been destroyed, or partially damaged in West Kelowna, along with five homes in Kelowna, and three homes on the North Westside. There have been structures lost in Lake Country, however, a specific number has not been made available.

Regional District Central Okanagan chair Loyal Wooldridge said structure loss reporting is underway.

“I was informed by our deputy director that an advanced planning team has been formed and they will be working to support efforts but it will take time,” he said.

Canada Task Force 1, a heavy urban search and rescue unit, has the job of going through affected neighbourhoods and assessing the damage.

“Today the Canada Task Force 1 is working on the Westside,” said Kari O’Rourke, public information officer, Central Okanagan Emergency Operations Centre (EOC).

The team is hoping to get as far as Pine Point and hoping to complete the Westside Road, within Electoral Area West over the next few days, she added. The task force will then move on to Kelowna and Lake Country.

Crews from the EOC are also carrying out hazard assessments.

“EOC teams are working to identify hazards and begin mitigation,” said O’Rourke. “Which is a critical step in the process of returning people to their communities safely. We know this is a very challenging time for everyone.”

Some of the dangers include downed power lines, unstable structures, dangerous trees, and hazardous materials.

The number of structures destroyed or damaged is expected to climb as emergency crews continue their work.

READ MORE: ‘These are unprecedented numbers’: More support for Okanagan wildfire evacuees

READ MORE: More than 800 Central Okanagan wildfire evacuees in Vernon


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Gary Barnes

About the Author: Gary Barnes

Journalist and broadcaster for three decades.
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