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Officials confirm four homes destroyed in Peachland fire

Residents leaving Peachland earlier in the day left plumes of smoke behind on the one road out of town—the highway. - contributed
Residents leaving Peachland earlier in the day left plumes of smoke behind on the one road out of town—the highway.
— image credit: contributed

Four houses and several outbuildings were casualties of the Trepanier blaze that broke out Sunday afternoon, and officials aren't ruling out the possibility that tally could rise in the days ahead if the weather mounts a challenge.

"There are hotspots and trees burning and we're expecting 50 km/h winds…and it may not rain," said Peachland fire chief Grant Topham, outlining lingering problems related to the 200 hectare Peachland fire, that was sitting at 50 per cent containment by Monday afternoon.

Those conditions, he explained, could put crews in the same position they faced when fires encroached on a residential area the day before.

"The wind was blowing hard" and, despite dozens of firefighters' efforts, streams of flames pushed out of their reach.

Two homes in the Trepanier area went up in tandem, then another, and one more abandoned property on the regional district side of the fire. All efforts to douse the flames were stymied, as their owners learned Monday when they were brought up the hillside to go through the charred remnants.

"This was a wind-driven event," stressed Jim Mottishaw, a forest protection officer who helped co-ordinate the air assault, noting the fire moved three kilometres over the course of an hour.

That said, he's confident the damage was kept at a minimum despite windy and dangerous conditions. They just don't look like they did when they were evacuated.

"Besides the homes lost, there are quite a few painted red (from retardant)," he said.

Red tinged roads, houses, cars and the burnt husks of trees and brush around a number of residential houses should offer some insight into how narrowly damage was averted, he said, noting that the Ponderosa golf course may be the unsung hero of the firefight.

Years previous, when trees were removed and the area was landscaped, a fire barrier was inadvertently built and that helped the battle on the Trepanier side of the fire.

That's in part how crews gained the upper hand there—reporting containment on that side of the fire— but the Pincushion side of the mountain is another story.

It's yet to be contained, and the challenge will be putting out hotspots and burning that are spread over a significant swath of land.

That said, the efforts to date have been heartening to Peachland Mayor Keith Fielding.

His "heart goes out to" those who have lost property, but the effort to date has given him confidence that the fire will be dealt with swiftly.

What's yet to be dealt with, however, is sussing out the cause of the fire. Speculation has run rampant and everything from a house fire gone wild to a stray meteor and discarded cigarette have been tossed around as theories.

Officials refused to comment on any possible causes.

All that's clear is that the fire started around 3 p.m. near Trepanier Creek Greenway Regional Park and grew steadily, despite an early assault from helicopters bucketing water.

The challenge was winds moving from 50 to 60 km per hour that whipped a small fire into a gargantuan blaze by 6 p.m. At that point it was measured at roughly 100 hectares and just a few hours later it had doubled.

Due to the speed it was moving, an evacuation order was issued for the approximately 1,500 residents living southwest of the Okanagan Connector including Trepanier Road and it was clear from the start that danger was imminent.

Several people who arrived at the Emergency Support Services reception centre in Westbank said they saw at least two houses in flames, including one close to the Hainle Vineyards Winery.

"The house right above the winery was in flames and (Trapanier) road was closed and we had to turn around," said Moyra Baxter, the Peachland area school trustee who was one of the people evacuated. She said it appeared fire retardant had been dumped on and around the winery.

Baxter said she was concerned about the fate of the Peachland Elementary School because the fire was believed to have burned over the hill behind the nearby IGA grocery store, which is located beside the school.

When she left her home on Sutherland Road, flames were about seven or eight properties away from her home.

Like many of the other people at the Westbank reception centre, Baxter said she left with the clothes on her back and little else and that in itself fuelled frenzy.

Highway 97 through the small Okanagan town was closed, and all the small roads leading to it were backed up as families with their vehicles chock full of personal possessions were basically parked.

The anxiety on the roads was underscored by the thrum of helicopters and water bombers that continually flew overhead in their path from the fire, to the lake.

By nightfall the flames lit up the small town and crews continued to work on building a fire barrier, as waterbombers retired for the evening.

There were no change to existing evacuation orders and alerts overnight either, and the 1,550 people ordered to evacuate and 432 placed on evacuation alert remained in the lurch.

RCMP and Central Okanagan Search and Rescue volunteers continue to staff checkpoints to ensure security within the Evacuation Area.  Until the Evacuation Order is rescinded, no one will be allowed within the area unless authorized by emergency personnel.

Kelowna and West Kelowna RCMP continue to maintain security of the affected area. The RCMP is supporting the emergency operations actioning this forest fire. The RCMP’s primary responsibilities are to keep the public safe and uphold the law. The RCMP continues to provide policing service to areas not affected by the fire and is working with government agencies and volunteers to ensure everyone’s safety.

New information and updates on the Evacuation Orders and Alerts will be available on the Regional District Emergency Program website www.cordemergency.ca. Public inquiries can be directed to 1-877-569-8490.

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