The acrid smell of wood smoke still hangs in the air as a hot summer sun beats down on the black spires and singed trees, grass turned to ash, and fine black dust along the benches above Trepanier Creek.
Red-suited figures swing pulaskis and shovels at the dusty earth, digging to reach smoldering tree roots and douse hotspots before they flare again to threaten homes and forest.
This has been the driest August and September in the Interior for as long as weather records have been kept, with only 5.4 mm of rainfall in that period, and with long hours of sunshine, reports David Jones, meteorologist with Environment Canada.
In some Interior communities record high temperatures have been recorded this week, even though summer officially ends Saturday with the autumn equinox.
The hot, dry weather has stretched the normal forest fire season well into September, and it’s forecast to continue through to the end of the month.
That’s not good news for firefighters challenged by the raging Trepanier Wildfire that swept through the Trepanier Valley and into Peachland on Sunday, Sept. 9, destroying four houses, vehicles, and outbuildings, and turning a commercial vineyard into rows of crisp brown skeleton leaves with roasted bunches of ripening grapes.
In all, the flames caused devastation in 213 hectares of forest along Trepanier Creek and up the steep slopes of Pincushion Mountain before crews got the upper hand, and this past week they’ve been mopping up.
“It was an extremely vigorous fire with extreme behaviour. It was spotting 500 metres ahead of the main fire, so even a 500-metre fire guard wouldn’t have offered enough protection,” commented Dale Bojahra, forest protection technician.
In fact, although there are certainly many steps that can and should be taken by communities to make them firesafe, there is sometimes extraordinary fire behaviour and facing that, no community is really firesafe, he admitted.
Gusty winds were unpredictable at the height of the Trepanier Wildfire, so it was difficult for firefighters to get a handle on it, he said.
However, as long as there are high temperatures and low humidity in this region, the risk of wildfire won’t lessen much, noted Bojahra.
He said the forest service prepares based on the fire hazard, looking twice a week at the forecast and preparing accordingly, so despite the loss of some summer students who returned to class in September, crews were available on standby when the call came in about the Trepanier Wildfire.
The forest service also has a Mutual Aid Agreement with all fire departments in the Okanagan, so they work together to fight fires in interface areas.
However, there is no fire department in much of the Trepanier Valley, which is outside the boundaries of Peachland, so residents rely on the forest service to attend forest fire calls unless staff make the decision to call on mutual aid partners such as Peachland.
Other such areas within this regional district include some properties in upper Ellison, some between Kelowna and the Joe Rich Fire District, some along Westside Road between the North Westside Fire Protection District and the Wilson’s Landing Fire District; but the June Springs and South Lakeshore areas are covered by a contract with the City of Kelowna, and the Brent Road area south of Peachland is covered by a contract with Peachland, reported Bruce Smith of the regional district.
At the peak of the fire, Bojahra estimates there were 100 firefighters from departments throughout the valley as well as the forest service crews battling the blaze and at one point two kilometres of hose and hand guard were extended along one side of the fire.
He advised that residents of both rural communities and urban ones should fireproof their properties, using the tips available from the forest service or online at: www.wildfire.ca/Fighting Wildfire/Safety/
Bojahra said forest service staff do their best to make fire smart information available to those living in forested communites, and they will hold a meeting where residents are interested, but it’s everyone’s responsibility to look at their own yard and do what they can to make it fire safe.
That includes cleaning up dead pine needles and branches; ensuring that no cedar hedges act as a wick carrying fire to your dwelling; not using untreated cedar shakes on your roof and by using fireproof mulches near structures.
“An ember from a wildfire is all that’s needed to set bark mulch or other flammable material afire,” he noted.
Water was not an issue because they were able to pump water from Trepanier Creek, but it’s vital that water also be available for fighting fires.
Except for the occasional hotspot, the Trepanier Wildfire is now out, but it’s a reminder to that community and others to ensure they’ve done all they can to prevent such fires from starting and from then getting out of control.
That said, Bojahra noted the community sure was supportive of firefighters’ efforts, providing coffee, cookies and putting up thank-you notices.