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‘Community spirit really shows in a crisis’: Kelowna wildfire evacuees face tiring days

Hanging over Okanagan Lake was a pall of putrid wildfire smoke
Smoke from wildfires fills the air in Kelowna, B.C., Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The eerie calm on the Kelowna waterfront Saturday morning was broken by the faint percussive chops of helicopter blades in the distance.

There were semblances of normality — people walking their dogs or cycling down the path along the lakefront.

But hanging over Okanagan Lake was a pall of putrid wildfire smoke, and the threat posed by fires on both sides of the lake.

Dale Simpson and Steve Smith were out walking their dogs near a marina, where dozens of boats and jet skis sat idle on the docks, the water mostly free of boats due to aerial firefighting craft needing a wide berth to do their work.

Simpson, along with hundreds of others, had gone up a hillside on Thursday night to watch the McDougall Creek wildfire across the lake when embers began blowing across the lake, sparking a spot fire nearby.

The crowd had a “front-row seat” to the devastation unfolding across the water.

“You saw fire going up hundreds of feet in the air,” he said. “The whole massive mountainside hillside was ablaze.”

But when the spot fire broke out, Simpson said, people had to flee their vantage point and get in their cars, causing a “big traffic jam getting out of there.”

Evacuee Claire Blaker came out to the Kelowna waterfront on Saturday morning, shading her eyes as she squinted through the smoke in hopes of seeing if her house was still standing.

She lives in West Kelowna and watched her neighbourhood burning on Friday night as house after house went “candling” up in flames.

She thought the part she lives in might still be OK, but she was “waiting for the smoke to lift.”

Waking up Saturday morning was “pretty tough,” she said, but she feels lucky that she had the time to pack up and get out of her home before things took a turn for the worse.

“People in Maui and Lahaina had no time,” she said, referencing victims of the deadly wildfire that devastated parts of Hawaii last week. “At least we did get that time, so I’m appreciative of that.”

For Dan Teahan, going for a walk on the waterfront gave him a bit of exercise. He was offering masks to people amid the smoke.

Teahan uses a walker and has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, so he was slowing his usual pace to get some relief from the smoke.

He said he watched the fire on Thursday night. He pointed across the water, struggling to see the faint hillside through the haze.

“As far as you could see was a wall of flames on that hillside, and it was just candling,” he said. “It was like end of times, man. You know, the apocalypse is coming or something, right? It just kept going and going.”

Teahen said he has lived in Kelowna for more than 20 years and is currently worried about the city’s less fortunate.

“Those guys can take care of themselves,” he said. “They got plenty of dough.”

But Teahan said the city had been through fire crises before, and it brought out the best in people.

“The community spirit really shows in a crisis in this town. People really pull together,” he said. “There’s a bunch of people here with really, really big hearts that step up to the plate when there’s trouble like this.”

Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press