While nearly all residents in Kaleden were allowed to return home at around noon Wednesday after a fire threatened dozens of structures, not everyone was lucky enough to have a home to return to.
Russell Layton’s parents own the one home known to have been affected by a blaze that sparked in Kaleden late Tuesday afternoon, but they had been staying at another property in Okanagan Falls.
An initial evacuation order late Tuesday afternoon had 18 homes on full evacuation, while over 160 were on alert. That evacuation order was lifted at around noon on Wednesday, allowing all remaining property owners to return home.
Layton said his parents stay in Okanagan Falls over the summers, while he stays at the Kaleden property, but he was working when the fire ignited, finding out about the fire in a call from his father.
“So my buddy came and picked me up and we tried to come down here to get my truck out of here and my car out of here, but they wouldn’t let us through, so I just had to sit out there kind of helpless,” Layton said.
“It was more wondering what’s going on, right? You don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t know where the fire’s coming from if it’s already taken the house and all the vehicles. That was my main concern.”
A friend provided a phone number for Layton to call from the Kaleden Fire Department, and a firefighter informed him that all of his vehicles and his boat were fine, but the house had been destroyed.
Before heading to a friend’s place to spend the night, Layton said he and some friends decided to try some side roads to catch a glimpse of the fire and see the extent of the damage.
“We drove along Eastside (Road) and didn’t see anything and thought, OK, let’s see if we can get down into Kaleden to see what’s going on,” Layton said. “We got down here and the fire department’s like, ‘Well, how did you get down here?’”
Despite losing his home, Layton had a sense of humour Tuesday afternoon about managing to get past the police and fire officials at around midnight, laughing about the incredulous reaction from the fire department.
“I asked if it was OK to look (the house) over, and he kind of guided me around, and it was a just utter shock. Because when I tried to come down here, I wanted to grab some valuables and I wasn’t allowed,” Layton said. “Literally everything that had value to me and my parents is gone.”
Layton, who was cleaning up with a pair of friends Tuesday afternoon, said it was lucky that his parents and their dog were in Okanagan Falls when the fire sparked.
“They’re about the same as me. They’re upset. But there’s nothing you can really do; the damage is done,” Layton said. “Time will tell to see what happens.”
Layton said he’s mostly curious about how the fire started to get a bit of “peace of mind” on what took his home away.
Fire officials said on Tuesday that the fire is believed to be human-caused because it wasn’t caused by lightning. But an official cause of the fire is likely to be a long time coming, with crews still on mop-up on the fire.
Acting Fire Chief Denis Gaudry said on Wednesday that the fire is 100 per cent contained at this point, meaning crews have managed to ensure the 6.5-hectare wildfire likely won’t spread beyond its current boundaries, save for unforeseen circumstances, like sudden high winds.
But Gaudry still expects some days of work to be done before firefighters can leave the area, with embers flying around and igniting small, smouldering patches. The patchy nature of the fire has meant difficulties for the department, as it has meant a lot of hiking around and searching for what could be small flames or a little smoke, hardly visible until it spreads.
Still, Gaudry said on Wednesday afternoon that he was feeling good about the work that firefighters had done. That work isn’t lost on local residents, with everyone who spoke to the Western News giving high praise for the firefighters’ work.
While Layton wasn’t so lucky, at least two nearby homeowners, both within metres of Layton, said the fire just skirted their properties, with both losing a combined three sheds.
“It probably started somewhere 300, 400 metres south of us. And with the strong winds, it came on our property really quickly. Probably within seconds,” said Larry Richardson, Layton’s next-door neighbour.
Dan Wiebe’s daughter’s family lives across a small gully from Richardson and Layton, but Wiebe and his wife had arrived at the property mid-afternoon on Tuesday after celebrating his 75th birthday.
With his daughter and her family away, Wiebe said he and his wife were the only ones at the property at the time of the fire, which he said moved “horrendously fast.”
“I heard (my wife) screaming at me, ‘Get up here.’ She said, ‘Something’s wrong: looks like fire,’” Wiebe said. “She couldn’t believe her eyes. … Looked like the whole forested area and orchard part was blazing.”
Wiebe said they “said a quick prayer” and headed to the other side of the lake to watch the fire with binoculars, at one point watching one of his daughter’s sheds catch fire.
“Sick,” he said of the feeling being away from the property while the fire was burning. “You’ve totally lost your appetite.”
Meanwhile, Richardson said he made his way back into Kaleden to help out in any way he could.
“When I arrived, the flames were 20, 30 feet in the air,” Richardson said. “I came through the blockade to try and save what we could because I was told we probably had lost everything. So, I needed to see for myself, and the house was still standing. So, it was get to work right away.”
Richardson said it wasn’t entirely an act of God that his house didn’t catch fire.
“Our house didn’t burn because several years ago we did Hardie Board and metal roof,” he said, adding that it was a conscious decision about 12 years ago due to the high risk of fires in the area.
Wiebe, too, said some preparations may have saved his daughter’s house, though perhaps of a more coincidental nature.
“What’s very interesting about it, our kids left yesterday morning. Overnight, they had run a sprinkler on the roof, thinking, ‘Well, we’ve got to wet this thing down just in case something happens,” Wiebe said.
Still, the blaze made for an uneasy Tuesday night for Wiebe and his wife, who stayed at their son-in-law’s parents’ place in Penticton.
“Last night wasn’t good. It took a while to get to sleep, and I was very restless,” he said.
“Because it’s on my mind how awful this is.”
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