It was an unprecedented year for B.C. wildfires.
This summer, 1,300 fires burned through 1.2 million hectares of forest, forced 45,000 people from their homes and cost the government more than $560 million in firefighting.
“Worst ever” was the way it was summed up by officials long before the smoke even started to clear. But that didn’t adequately explain the suffering caused to those who had been through evacuations, agonizing over whether their homes and all their personal belongings would be saved.
Worst hit in the Central Okanagan, as far as personal losses, was Lake Country in what RCMP have deemed a deliberately set fire. Mounties allege the blaze was set intentionally along Okanagan Centre Road West July 15, and quickly moved up the steep terrain toward Nighthawk Road.
“It was incredible how fast the fire raced up that hill,” said Blair Croom, a Nighthawk Road resident, while standing amid cars and personal property embedded in soot. While his home was still standing, eight of 20 other homes on Nighthawk were destroyed.
“Your emotions are raw. You’re not sure what to say to others who lost their homes. It’s hard to look at the damage left behind, it’s so devastating,” said Joanne Croom.
Mounties have yet to make an arrest in the arson investigation and have not spoken about it since summer.
The weather contributed to the Lake Country fire, but conditions continually worsened.
Environment Canada reported that July and August broke temperature records in the Central Okanagan for continual stretches of scorching weather. Making matters worse was a nearly eight-week stretch with no rain.
The next big fire was expected to spread fast, and it did.
The Philpott road wildfire started small Aug. 24 about 20 kilometres east of Kelowna in the Joe Rich area and it spread quickly.
Area property owner Jeremy Ford said the blaze began as a spot fire along Highway 33. By the time he had called for help, it was already racing through grass and bush into a heavily treed area.
Ford said he ensured his family was safely out and then remained behind to help others.
“I stayed there until the last minute to help out my neighbours because they have got animals,” said Ford, who added he released the animals from a neighbouring barn just as police ordered him to leave.
“So now the animals have got a chance to live and not be cooped up in a pen in the fire. That’s all we can do.”
Even closer to danger was Cynthia Row who said she was running on trails through the hills above Highway 33 when flames began shooting up trees around her, blocking the path and forcing her to bushwhack downhill toward the highway.
She ran into a wall of fire before she reached the safety of the road, but was able to sidestep the flames.
“I was terrified and now I’m just in shock,” she said.
“I’ve never been this scared in my life. I’ve had encounters with bears. I’ve been lost for days. I’ve been in trouble, and I’ve never experienced anything like this. It was frightening.
“I’m very lucky I got out.”
In the end, the Philpott Road fire spread over 465 hectares, blessedly staying away from nearby homes.
By the time August came to an end, the Central Okanagan, along with the rest of B.C., was worn down by fire.
Local evacuation centres were chock full of people who were forced from homes in the Cariboo and for the better part of a month the air was heavy with soot and ash. Area residents had become adept at reading air quality ratings as the number correlated to their ability to go outside.
Conditions seemed to have finally improved in September when the Finlay Creek fire broke out.
Between Peachland and Summerland, that blaze sent plumes of smoke into the sky within hours of it being ignited.
It was attacked quickly by BC Wildfire Crews, but it still moved quickly toward Summerland and evacuations were ordered.
In just under a week from when it started Mother Nature decided to chip in with some help.
A rain storm swept through the Okanagan valley offering the first dampness rainfall the region has seen in months, prompting happy dances from Capital News readers.
It seemed, as suddenly as it came on, fire season was snuffed out.
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