“One of the most challenging nights of firefighting in our history.” “A devastating night.” “100 years of firefighting all at once.” “A fire chief's worst nightmare.”
West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund, exhausted after a hard night on the fire line, had many ways to describe the overnight firefight on the McDougall Creek wildfire, during a press conference Friday morning.
He spoke sombrely about the significant losses suffered by several communities on the west side of Okanagan Lake, when the massive wildfire grew to an estimated 6,800 hectares as strong winds pushed the fire north through the night and into the early morning hours.
There were some close calls though. Brolund noted emergency crews risked their lives during the rescue of a group of people who had chosen not to evacuate, despite being under an evacuation order.
“We had people trapped, that's a fire chief's worst nightmare. Those emergency responders were trapped because they were rescuing members of the public who had chosen not to leave,” Brolund said.
“They couldn't make it out because the fire had burned across and blocked the road ... there was only one way in and one way out. Great risk was taken to preserve life in that case.
“We will risk a lot to save a lot and here were a number of risks taken to save lives and property last night. But there were also risks taken that didn't have to be, and that was because people chose not to evacuate in one particular case.”
He urged residents to leave when ordered to, so as to not put emergency crews at risk.
"This is the real deal ... Last night was an orderly evacuation by all measures, but I desperately hope they all left when we asked them."
Brolund also said a number of people were rescued out of the water at Traders Cove after people were forced to flee from the flames into the lake.
“That is definitely an option of last resort,” he said.
Fire officials, including Brolund, had spent the previous 24 hours warning the public about the possibility of strong winds whipping up existing fires and sparking new ones Thursday night. But even the experts were surprised by what occurred.
“We knew that it was going to be bad ... this is what we planned for and what we practised for, but it was exponentially worse than we had expected,” Brolund said.
He spoke about one of the firefights he was a part of in the West Kelowna Estates neighbourhood.
“Last night I joined my men and women on the ground at about 2 a.m. and we undertook one of the biggest firefights I've ever been a part of in the West Kelowna Estates neighbourhood,” Brolund said.
“Night turned to day because of the orange glow of the clouds from the fire that was happening. The firefighters who fought that fire held that ground, they saved homes too numerous to list in West Kelowna Estates and I'm incredibly proud of the work that was done.”
Many homes were lost though. Brolund spent the morning flying above the fire in a helicopter, and he called the sights “gut-wrenching.”
Despite the incredible efforts from firefighters through the night, conditions remain windy and warm, and Brolund said there's little reprieve in sight.
“My people are strong, we;'re going to be here for the long run. We're going to prepare for it to be worse, and we ask the public to do the same,” Brolund said.
“We may have another scary night tonight. People are going to see that glow again and it's going to look worse than you ever expected but know that we're there and watching it.”