5,000 Evacuated In Western Canada

Fire rages out of control in Okanagan Mountain park in this photo taken from the Coquihalla Connector late Monday evening, August 18, 2003.
AP
An aggressive fire began burning houses in Kelowna suburbs in British Columbia as emergency officials rushed to move 5,000 people from their homes.

The houses were burning late Thursday night on two southernmost streets within city limits, said Bruce Smith, a regional district spokesman.

"It was fast, it was very fast," said Karen Cairns, a regional emergency official, describing how quickly officials moved in order to evacuate residents in southeast Kelowna suburbs, including Kettle Valley and Uplands.

People living there had been issued an evacuation alert earlier in the week as the mushrooming Okanagan Mountain Park fire inched closer, measuring 52 square miles by Thursday.

The twin wildfires raging in Central Oregon altered the plans of President Bush and forced the evacuation of as many as 1,500 residents.

The president had planned to tour a section of forest in the Camp Sherman area to promote his proposed legislation for forest thinning but the wildfire prevented a stop at the remote resort community, where between 1,200 and 1,500 residents were told to evacuate Thursday.

"It's a real dangerous fire," said incident commander Mike Benefield. "It's going to cover some ground before it's all done."

A wildfire in Southern California's eastern Moreno Valley scorched an orange grove and destroyed several vehicles as it expanded to 1,668 acres before being contained Wednesday evening.

The Kelowna fire jumped a fire guard near a residential area Thursday, prompting the evacuation order, said Cairns.

The fire had already reduced much of Okanagan Mountain Park to ash by Thursday and huge balls of ash and sparks were seen raining down on yards in the neighboring community of Naramata, whose 1,000 residents were also on evacuation alert.

Part of the fire's growth was due to a controlled burnoff to try and deny bone-dry fuel to the fire, said fire officials.

About 110 firefighters and 11 helicopters were working to control the blaze that has consumed most of the park.

A fleet of 50 bulldozers and other pieces of heavy equipment were racing to build a fire guard around the blaze.

The Okanagan Mountain park blaze is just one of a half-dozen major fires threatening southern B.C. communities, where more than 3,000 firefighters, including hundreds of Canadian soldiers, are battling the flames.

It's been a record year for wildfires, said Kevin Matuga, a fire information officer for the B.C. Forest Service.

"It is unusual for us to have more than one major interface fire in a season," he said Thursday, referring to the type of wildfire that encroaches on communities.

"This year we have had seven major interface fires in the Kamloops fire center alone.

"We are doing everything we can and we are ensuring to the best of our ability the safety of the public," Matuga said.

Thousands of residents of southern interior British Columbia remained out of their homes as hot, dry weather and high winds fanned the flames of about 850 fires burning across the province. Almost half the fires were in the Kamloops area.

The fire crisis prompted the B.C. government to declare a state of emergency Aug. 2 and issue a voluntary travel advisory asking people to avoid the province's southern backcountry.