Emergency Minister Bowinn Ma said the province has all the resources it needs to respond to wildfires currently threatening communities across British Columbia.
That includes West Kelowna and Kelowna, where the situation is “rapidly evolving” with at least 3,500 people under evacuation orders.
Ma and BC Wildfire Service’s Cliff Chapman repeated earlier appeals to follow evacuation orders after individuals in West Kelowna had defied such orders in the face of the McDougall Creek wildfire in West Kelowna.
“That puts people’s lives at risk,” Chapman said, adding it also takes a significant toll on staff trying to get people out of the way of fires moving “at rates we rarely see in British Columbia.”
These appeals came during a last-minute, Friday afternoon update on the wildfire situation, which also included Forests Minister Bruce Ralston and provincial staff.
“Let me first off be very clear…this is an emergency situation in many regions across the province,” Ma said.
She added that the declaration of a provincial state of emergency itself is largely an “administrative step” that allows the province to access specific tools available through the declaration.
“But the tools that we need right now are available to us through the Wildfire Act,” she said. Other resources are available through the Emergency Program Act and as well as through the transportation ministry, she said.
The province is constantly assessing the situation and the situation can change quickly, she added.
The question of whether B.C. should declare a formal state of emergency comes as strong winds and dry lightning caused by a cold front have fanned existing fires and sparked new ones across the province.
But much of provincial and increasingly international attention has shifted to the Okanagan, where fires have destroyed a significant number of private homes as well as businesses in West Kelowna while threatening the larger community of Kelowna on the other side of Okanagan Lake.
Of the 4,500 people in B.C. subject to evacuation orders, some 3,500 have addresses in the Central Okanagan, where smoke-filled skies stemming from the McDougall Creek fire have shut down the airspace at Kelowna International Airport to commercial and non-emergency air traffic.
The Clifton/McKinley wildfire in Kelowna, suspected to be caused by embers from the McDougall Creek fire, has forced the hasty evacuation of UBC’s Okanagan campus not far from the airport as well neighbouring residential areas with RCMP going door-to-door.
Local health facilities remain operational, but officials having taking preparatory steps by issuing a Code Orange for Kelowna General Hospital.
Another 23,500 British Columbians, many of them in the Central Okanagan, but also elsewhere, are on evacuation alert.
Social media posts also show streams of vehicles leaving Kelowna heading north amidst reports of winds pushing flames south toward the more urban parts of Kelowna.
Nicole Bonnett, a spokesperson for BC Wildfire Service, said she does not have enough information to comment about the future course of wildfire activity, when asked about fires might potentially cutting off the major highway in and out of Kelowna and West Kelowna.
“I guess what I will say though is that we have seen significant growth on a lot of these fires,” she said. “A lot of it is wind-driven and due to the (hot) conditions. It is likely that we will continue to see these spread quite quickly.
“How that wind presents on site with the local topography will really influence the fire growth and the direction that the fire moves in, and that really could change at any point in time.”
This could also lead to an escalation of people under evacuation orders.
“This is a rapidly evolving situation, very dynamic,” Ma said. “I don’t know that it’s helpful to provide anticipatory numbers here.
“It’s a situation that we are managing actively right, but what I will say is that we do an enormous amount of pre-planning work with emergency operation centres in communities to prepare for various scenarios.”
Ma said she was “deeply horrified” to see the fires rip through Kelowna and West Kelowna.
The area is still faced with great challenges and Ma said she knows it’s been a long 24 hours for the people in the affected areas. She added her ministry and the BC Wildfire Service is working closely with Premier David Eby to keep people safe.
Eby released a statement on the wildfires shortly before the province’s update. He said the situation is volatile.
“We know some people have lost their homes and many more are being asked to evacuate, not knowing what they’ll find when it’s safe to return. Decisions around evacuation orders are not made lightly.”
He urged people to listen to local authorities and to be prepared for evacuations.
“We must do our part to make sure emergency workers can do their work and get to where they need to go.”
Ma also appealed to British Columbians to avoid travel to certain areas.
“At this time, I’m asking British Columbians and tourists to avoid travelling to the Central Interior and southeast portions of the province if possible,” she said. “The central and southeast are facing high risks of wildfire due to the developing situation.”
The update comes a few hours after the Central Okanagan Regional District gave updates on the McDougall Creek wildfire in West Kelowna, the Clifton/McKinley fire in Kelowna and several fires in the Lake Country area.
“Unfortunately, we are not out of the woods yet,” said Loyal Wooldridge, district chair.
The wildfires have also shut down the airspace around Kelowna International Airport.
Ma’s federal counterpart, Emergency Management Minister Harjit S. Sajjan, said earlier Friday during a press conference on the wildfire situation in the Northwest Territories that he has also been in contact with Ma and other officials in B.C. He offered “full support” for the Kelowna area and other Okanagan fires.