Officials in Penticton, B.C., say the threat from a 20-square-kilometre fire burning since Tuesday has diminished after winds did not spread the fire as feared.
But an evacuation order for more than 300 homes and an alert for another 3,700 remain in place. Officials say the Christie Mountain fire is still dangerous, and the orders will not be lifted until it’s considered completely safe.
“We haven’t lifted the order because we haven’t felt 100 per cent comfortable yet, and when we do we will,” Dan Taudin-Chabot of the B.C. Wildfire Service told a news conference from Penticton on Saturday.
Along with other officials, he said that firefighters took advantage of the favourable weather to further protect vulnerable homes with sprinkler systems. They also dropped fire retardant along the perimeter of the blaze and water on the fire itself.
Officials like Taudin-Chabot say the fire is still estimated to be 20 square kilometres, much the same size as when it became a problem on Tuesday, shortly after it ignited. Officials still do not know the cause of the fire. They were trying to better measure it on Saturday.
‘Uncertainty is really hard’
Michele Deoll has been out of her home since Tuesday. That’s when the fast-moving fire put her home — in one of Penticton’s suburbs perched on the hills above Skaha Lake — at risk.
On Saturday, she went to the roadblock leading to her home to see how the neighbourhood was faring, as helicopters circled overhead, dropping water on the fire in the hills above.
Deoll, her husband and two children have been living with her brother at his house in nearby Naramata. She said her anxiety level has gone down, based on the news from fire officials, but life is still tough.
“It’s the displacement of our lives and potential loss of the home — and mostly right now we don’t know anything, haven’t been up there, we can see the smoke, we don’t know what it’s doing,” she said.
“The uncertainty is really hard.”
Taudin-Chabot said he understands that, but officials aren’t prepared to take any chances with letting people go home too soon.
“We don’t want to be premature on this, it’s really important that we nail it,” he said, “I know it’s tough on the citizens, and we feel that and we feel that pressure, but we don’t want to make an incorrect decision.”
Winds were expected to shift once again on Saturday, and there is the potential the fire could grow despite efforts to contain it. Taudin-Chabot said it could move into new areas where there is newer fuel, like plants and trees, to burn.
Blaze is difficult to fight
The fire is burning on rocky, sloped terrain, making it hard for ground crews and heavy equipment to tackle. So far, it has destroyed one home.
At the height of the fire, the B.C. Wildfire Service said 200 firefighters and 16 helicopters were battling the Christie Mountain blaze.
At the press conference on Saturday, officials said about 110 firefighters — representing the majority of local firefighters who came from municipalities around the province to help — had started heading home because their assistance was no longer needed. They could be called back, however, if the fire situation worsens, officials said.
“We feel very confident that the fire is no longer threatening structures adjacent to the fire in the city of Penticton,” Penticton Fire Chief Larry Watkinson said.
More than 4,100 people had pre-registered as evacuees, the city said.
Late Friday, the B.C. Wildfire Service put in place an area restriction around where the fire is burning to keep people from going into the area and disrupting fire suppression work.
Mayor John Vassilaki praised citizens on Saturday for allowing fire crews to freely operate, as well as for not stopping their vehicles to look at the fire.