'Connecting the dots': BC Wildfire Service crews working around the clock on containment at Keremeos Creek, ask for patience from evacuees

Keremeos Creek fire grows

UPDATE 9 p.m.

New mapping by the BC Wildfire Service now pegs the Keremeos Creek wildfire at more than 6,800 hectares in size.

Fire information officer Marg Drysdale, assigned to the fire, says an updated mapping of the fire, including planned ignitions over the past couple of days, puts the fire at 6,832 hectares in size.

"The fire is still considered out of control, but we are getting very good progress, very good guards put in place and the crews have done a phenomenal job," Drysdale told Castanet News Monday evening.

"We are getting great progress on that fire."

All evacuation orders and alerts remain in place, but Drysdale says crews are working very hard and very diligently to get people back into their homes as soon as possible.

"But, obviously they will not change those (orders and alerts until it is safe to do so."

There remains 547 properties on evacuation order including the communities of Apex and Olalla.

UPDATE: 3 p.m.

As crews continue to battle the out-of-control Keremeos Creek wildfire, working around the clock to protect homes in evacuated communities, BC Wildfire Service urges everyone to respect evacuation orders and road closures, and to stop "belligerent" activity at check points.

The nearly 6,000 hectare blaze has 547 properties on evacuation order, including the communities of Apex and Olalla, although not all residents have complied.

BCWS information officer Bryan Zandberg said containment work is going well, helped along by a lack of wind in recent days, and now it is a matter of "connecting the dots" of containment lines. But with a fire this size in terrain this varied, there is no quick fix.

Residents are understandably eager to get back into homes, and travellers hopeful that Highway 3A will open again soon. Zandberg says they are working on it but safety is the top priority.

Particularly in the Olalla area, weather conditions have seen the fire continue to push down towards the community and the highway.

"We don't have it 100 per cent contained yet. We're getting there. But it's just too early to call that part of the fire contained," Zandberg explained.

"We're hearing people being, in some cases, verbally combative with security at some of the checkpoints, and that's really not helpful," added EOC information officer Erick Thompson.

"We really appreciate people's patience and understand that this is a difficult time ... everything is being done to get people back into their homes as quickly as possible ... showing some patience and some kindness to those people who are simply just doing their jobs is really important, understanding this process can potentially be dangerous if it's not executed properly."

Anyone who is able to leave should do so, and back-and-forth access is only available on specific approved emergency bases.

Helicopters may not be able to bucket properly if people stay in evacuated areas, those individuals may be vulnerable to rolling debris, a phenomenon that this particular fire has demonstrated in recent days, and if people in evacuation zones need to be rescued, that puts more lives at risk in the form of the RCMP and BCWS personnel who go in to get them.

"Please do just comply, please do trust that we are mindful and empathetic with the hardships people are going through and doing everything in our power to get people back into their homes," Zandberg said.

He said he is not aware of anyone who has stayed in their homes being a problem for crews at this time, but that some attempting to leave and return have been "belligerent" and caused a drain on their resources.

While there have been those instances of bad apples, many locals have demonstrated extreme patience for which rural Keremeos director Tim Roberts thanked them.

"People are frustrated and concerned but also really understanding the hard work that's being put in to protect their homes," Roberts said, adding that he and the EOC have been working on approved exceptions for access to certain properties.

"As late as last night, we have an orchard that's pushing hard to get all its fruit off the trees and it's right at the peripheral of the the edge of this evacuation order. So we were able to come to an agreement and process on how they would do evacuations, come up with a reasonable timeline and a permitting process for them to quickly get their crop off. So again, [we ask people to] continue to be patient and let us help them through the process."

On the Apex Mountain flank of the fire, activity has been quiet, but the village is still under evacuation order. Zandberg said that is because a shift in the wind could change everything "at the drop of a hat."

That said, fire crews at Apex have used the relative downtime to create groundbreaking new structure protection plans and are ready should the fire start growing their way.

"In terms of our wildland operations, we are building guards as close to the fire as we can and second and tertiary contingency linings behind those to prevent the fire from ever making a run at Apex Mountain," Zandberg said.

It's a hard-to-reach area, so crews have had to get creative.

"I understand it's novel, in terms of how much apparatus is up there and the water relay systems that have been put together collaboratively up there. The structural protection branch [of BCWS] is asking us to go up there and document what they've done because it's new. This hasn't been done before, and they're quite proud of what they've accomplished up there."

As of Monday, a total of 405 fire personnel from BCWS and crews from all over the province are actioning the fire, along with a wide arsenal of heavy equipment and air support.

Zandberg concluded Monday's press conference by asking the public to be safe on Highway 3A when it does reopen.

"We did hear from our structural protection branch a couple of days ago, before the road closure was put in. They had a couple of real near misses with folks watching the fire and nearly slamming into their fire engines going down the road," Zandberg said.

"We're going to definitely need people to [have their] eyes on the road. And driving good and slow through that area."

Evacuees needing support and residents looking for the latest information on orders and alerts can click here for helpful links and phone numbers. Reception centres are set up in Penticton at Princess Margaret Secondary and in Keremeos at Victory Hall.

Watch the full Emergency Operations Centre/BCWS update for Monday, Aug. 8 below:

Contributed RDOS

UPDATE: 2 p.m.

The Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen Emergency Operations Centre and BC Wildfire Service are holding a live video update on the Keremeos Creek wildfire at 2 p.m.

Watch live above.

UPDATE: 9:45 a.m.

The latest update from BC Wildfire Service indicates crews will be continuing the use of planned ignitions to fortify hand guards constructed Sunday.

"Two unit crews will use hand ignitions on approximately 30 hectares to secure a large stretch of ground north of the town of Olalla. Helicopters and an ignition specialist will also be on site," reads the update Monday morning.

"These hand ignitions will bring the fire down to safe, workable ground for crews and are crucial for creating reliable containment. During operations, increased fire activity and smoke may be visible from Olalla and Keremeos."

Weather today will reach a maximum expected temperature of 29 C and a minimum relative humidity of 15 per cent, with winds up to 10 kilometres per hour from the east and southeast.

"This means some containment lines could be challenged, potentially bringing the fire closer to Apex Mountain Resort and into the Olalla Creek drainage. Given forecasted crossover conditions, crews will be monitoring the weather for all work locations."

A new perimeter will be flown later in the day, but the current size estimate is listed at 5,903 hectares.

245 wildland firefighters are assigned to this fire working with an additional 160 structural protection personnel from fire departments across BC for a total of 405 firefighters.

The Keremeos Creek wildfire has been burning since July 29. Apex Mountain Village and Olalla remain under evacuation order, as well as many adjacent rural properties, and more than 1,000 properties are on alert.

For a full list and to find out about emergency support for evacuees, click here.

ORIGINAL: 6:30 a.m.

Controlled burns were used Sunday in a bid to rein in the Keremeos Creek wildfire southwest of Penticton.

"The fire size is going to grow because we're bringing fire to our control lines," fire information officer Mikhail Elsay said.

Crews planned the ignitions to fortify hand guard constructed Saturday.

Hand ignitions on about 30 hectares were used to secure a large stretch of ground north of Olalla and bring the fire down to safe, workable ground for crews.

Hand ignitions were also planned on the northeastern corner of the fire, from the end of Sheep Creek Road.

Crews are assigned to hold the fire to the north of the Highway 3A corridor.

The fire is currently 5,903 hectares in size.

On the western flank, crews continued a direct attack from Green Mountain Road to Keremeos Creek Forest Service Road. Heavy equipment continues to be used to establish contingency lines from Apex Mountain over Dividend Mountain to south Keremeos Creek.

On the eastern flank, containment lines continue to be established in the northeast quadrant. Crews continue to construct line around Hedges Butte towards McKay Creek as well as building fuel free and hand guard from McKay Creek towards Green Mountain Road.

BCWS Structure Protection Branch continues to assign crews to put in sprinkler systems to protect properties in the northeast quadrant along Green Mountain Road.

Night operations continue with both wildland and structural crews patrolling, mopping up where and as needed.

More than 500 properties are under an evacuation order, while more than 1,000 more are under an evacuation alert.

Hot, dry weather will continue to increase fire activity, the BC Wildfire Service says, but calmer wind conditions should help firefighters with their efforts.

"The evenings are much more stable over the last couple of days," Elsay said Sunday.

– with files from The Canadian Press

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