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Parts of Osoyoos, B.C. under evacuation order as wildfire crosses U.S. Canada border

July 31, 2023  By Hina Alam and Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press


Residents of Osoyoos, B.C., breathed a sigh of relief on Sunday after watching a rapidly spreading wildfire dance on the edges of their southern Okanagan community for hours, only to retreat as shifting winds pushed the flames further afield.

The Eagle Bluff wildfire was burning about four kilometres from the town adjacent to the U.S. border on Sunday, with the B.C. Wildfire Service saying it blew into Canada from Washington State late the previous day.

The blaze, currently classified as out-of-control after scorching 8.85 square kilometres in Canada so far, triggered evacuation orders for more than 700 properties in the area. The Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen said an alert is also in effect for more than 2,000 properties, with affected residents urged to be ready to leave on short notice. Those alerts blanketed the entire west side of Osoyoos, as well as a stretch of land on the west side of Osoyoos Lake extending northward along Highway 97.

Melissa Genberg, who has a bird’s-eye view of the town from her home near Anarchist Mountain across from Osoyoos Lake, watched with shock as smoke crept up from the southwest.

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“We were having a pig roast barbecue yesterday at our house and we noticed the smoke in Oroville (Washington,)” she said in an interview on Sunday.

“It crossed that whole mountain so fast. It was wild. It’s a lot of grass and a lot of sagebrush, and it was very windy yesterday, so it just took off and just kept burning and crossed the border and headed right to Osoyoos.”

Genberg was forced to flee her home during the Nk’Mip Creek wildfire of 2021, which burned about 174 square kilometres. She said she understands how harrowing a fire can be.

“Oh, it was crazy,” she said. “They’re very scary. They move very, very fast.”

So, when people of the Town of Osoyoos started sending her messages, asking for updates on what she could see from her vantage point, she said she decided to post updates to the community Facebook page and stay up as long as possible.

The first photo she shared, snapped at 3:23 p.m. local time on Saturday, depicts white smoke against blue skies billowing from behind green mountains.

“We couldn’t see the flames or anything like that but we could see it moving,” she said. “You could see the smoke getting closer and closer and closer. By about 8:30 or 9 ‘o’clock it had come right up to the Osoyoos golf course.”

Genberg said she went to bed around 1:30 a.m. Sunday and was up again within a few hours.

That’s when she saw the wind had changed direction and the fire was “blowing itself back.”

The blaze came right up to Nathan Ondrus’s backyard, which skirts Crown land and sits by the golf course.

“The fire was right on the back of the property. It was burning right on the edge of my property,” he said. “The firefighters did an awesome job. They did some back burns and pushed it away from the houses.

The BC Wildfire Service said initial attack crews, structure protection personnel, heavy equipment and a helicopter are fighting the wildfire and were on site overnight and into Sunday morning.

Ondrus, who was under evacuation orders, sent his family away but chose to stay behind to keep an eye on his property and help firefighters.

It was a scary night, he said.

“But I’m just looking here. Everything’s looking black up there (by the mountains), but all the houses are safe and the fire is moving away from the dense areas of Osoyoos.”

Justin Fortin, who also lives by the local golf course, said he and his family first noticed the fire around 1 p.m. Saturday.

“They were water bombing it for awhile. You could see the planes on the lake,” he said. “It looked like they had a good handle on it. And then all of a sudden, things changed and it changed really, really fast.”

His property is one of those under an evacuation order, and his wife and kids went to stay in a hotel while he, like Ondrus, chose to stay home to keep watch and lend a hand if needed.

He said the scene on Sunday morning was much more peaceful. The fire left blackened vegetation behind in its path over the mountains, but the skies seemed clear and there was no sign of smoke, he said.

“Everything looks just fine. The fire is out,” Fortin said. “It looks like it’s moved way further west.”

South of the Canada-U.S. border, however, the situation remains more active.

Jessa Lewis, spokeswoman for Washington State Department of Natural Resources, said the wildfire has scorched a little over 32 square kilometres in the United States.

The wildfire is out-of-control on the U.S. side and crews are trying to contain it using water, retardant and creating fire lines, she said.

“I know we’ve been hitting it pretty aggressively,” she said.

“We had over a dozen aircraft¬†on the fire within hours. We definitely were battling the dryer conditions and the wind, which blew things north and caused it to cross the border.”

Lewis said a combination of dry ground conditions and “pretty agressive winds” helped propel the flames northward to Canada.

The fire has destroyed three structures in Washington but no residences, she added.

News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc., 2021

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