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Community 'fortunate' wildfire waned, evacuation alerts lifted in Penticton, B.C.

PENTICTON, B.C. — Communities in the path of a wildfire that subsided over the weekend were lucky to avoid a worse fate, says the mayor of Penticton, B.C.

PENTICTON, B.C. — Communities in the path of a wildfire that subsided over the weekend were lucky to avoid a worse fate, says the mayor of Penticton, B.C.

An evacuation alert was lifted Monday for 3,669 properties in the city's southeast, where residents have spent nearly one week prepared to leave at a moment's notice.

Officials said they are working to ensure it is safe for hundreds of evacuees on the other side of the 20-square-kilometre blaze to return home before lifting an evacuation order covering 319 properties.

"We just didn't experience the bad luck — we'll call it bad luck — that other communities have," Mayor John Vassilaki said, giving the example of Fort McMurray, Alta., where a ferocious wildfire forced nearly 90,000 people from their homes in 2016.

Wildfires have intensified in recent years in Canada's western provinces and both 2017 and 2018 were record-breaking years in British Columbia. 

There were no major wildfires this year until mid-August.

"Even though it was late in the season and we weren't expecting anything like this to happen, we were very, very fortunate that we were able to put the fire out and save all those homes with, unfortunately, the exception of one," Vassilaki said.

The fire broke out on Christie Mountain east of Skaha Lake on Aug. 18 and grew to 10 square kilometres in less than one day. Its cause remains under investigation.

Strong winds over the weekend threatened to push the fire north towards Penticton, but they failed to fuel the blaze and crews welcomed cooler weather on Sunday.

The B.C. Wildfire Service said Monday the fire's activity was minimal and there had been no major flare-ups. The service is working with the regional district and the City of Penticton on recommendations to downgrade the existing evacuation orders and alerts as conditions improve, it said.

The Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen said re-entry plans are being finalized to provide residents of the Heritage Hills neighbourhood safe access to their homes.

More than 300 properties in the neighbourhood just north of Okanagan Falls remain under an evacuation order, but the regional district says the goal is to return people home as soon as possible in a staged approach.

Geotechnical work is underway and crews are working to ensure the safety of homes, driveways and retaining walls, as well as critical infrastructure like gas, power and water lines, the district said.

Karla Kozakevich, who chairs the regional district, said she understands it's a stressful time for those forced out of their homes.

"Let's remind ourselves that one home was completely destroyed in the fire and those homeowners will not have a home to return to and they have a long road ahead of them," she said.

Another 116 properties in the upper Carmi area also remain under alert.

Trees and other potential dangers are also being assessed and the regional district says it's working with BC Parks to ensure the safety and security of Skaha Bluffs Provincial Park.

On Monday, 192 firefighters worked with structure-protection personnel and multiple fire departments. They continued strengthening control lines on the southwest flank of the fire with support from 15 helicopters, the wildfire service said.

Crews also continued to work on access points and contingency lines on the north and east flanks with eight pieces of heavy machinery.

"The aviation fleet has been doing an excellent job at holding the fire and buying us time to follow up with crews," the service said.

It said crews continued to reinforce control lines at Skaha Bluffs Provincial Park.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 24, 2020.

The Canadian Press

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