PENTICTON - Hundreds of people remain out of their homes as crews continue to battle the two wildfires in the Oliver area today. There is an uneasy calm after the frantic firefighting and evacuations last night.
Smoke plumes dot the mountainsides west of the community today, Aug. 15, after the Wilsons Mountain and Testalinden Creek fires burned on a fire front one resident says seemed to run for kilometres.
Few visible flames can be seen, but the fire is by no means out, Oliver mayor Ron Hovanes says.
“I am concerned a few of those evacuated are choosing to return to their homes,” he says.
Hovanes says everyone is hoping for rain.
The Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen says residents on the outskirts of Oliver who were ordered to leave on Friday because of the Wilson Mountain fire were allowed to go home Saturday.
An evacuation order for another group residents south of the town, however, remains in effect, due to the Testalinden Creek fire.
Hovanes says Friday night in the community was “zooish” as huge flames made their way down the mountain just west of Oliver to within metres of the community.
“It was a nasty sight, a very scary night. The smoke in town was intense and the wind was nasty,” he says, pointing to the broken tree limbs and branches in the streets.
Hovanes says he heard of a resident whose camper blew over during the windstorm.
“(The fast fire growth) speaks volumes about the dry conditions out there right now,” he says.
The mayor says he hasn’t seen a situation like it since a 1969 wildfire starting out of the landfill and burned for weeks in the Oliver area.
“The good news story today is no lives have been lost, and other than one structure I believe burned in the Testalinden Creek fire, there have been no other structures lost,” he says.
John Topham from the District of Summerland was looking after the evacuation centre Saturday, as the Summerland crew gave the Oliver and Osoyoos emergency service teams a much needed break.
“We are waiting for a status update from the regional district. So far, there has been no talk about further evacuations or lifting of current ones,” he says.
About 130 people were registered overnight.
Topham says many found alternative accommodations, with roughly 40 people staying in the Oliver community hall overnight.
One evacuated resident who remained in the community hall Saturday morning was also looking after two barn cats she had grabbed before leaving her property.
“We were in bed when someone knocked on our door,” says the Willowbrook Road resident, who preferred not to be named.
“We just grabbed our cats and dogs and left.”
Flames came within about 50 metres of Helena Souto's house, which was saved by the lush orchard between it and the fire zone.
"We had the sprinkler running overnight, that's maybe why it didn't get too close to the house," she told the Penticton Herald on Saturday after returning to survey the damage.
"I didn't expect to see the house this morning."
Dozens of fruit trees that served as the makeshift fire guard were scorched and she expects they'll have to be replanted.
"But that's Mother Nature," Souto says. "You can't stress out about it."
Her neighbour, Spud Torrao, spent the night on top of his home, which was also saved by fruit trees.
"I've lived through burn-outs. I lived in Lilloet and twice I got evacuated, and I said I'm going to stay until the last second until the corner of the house gets going, so I laid up there and I had the water hose," he recalled while repairing a sign damaged by heavy winds.
"I've got a metal roof and said I'll tough it out."
Torrao says he felt the bolt of lightning that he believes sparked the Testalinden fire, then "the wind started up right away and I knew that we were in trouble."
He's now worried about the stability of the slopes above his home if thunderstorms materialize as forecasted for later in the day.
The region's agricultural backbone may have prevented more extensive losses, said a spokesman for the Oliver Fire Department.
"Some of those orchards and vineyards that kept stuff green definitely saved those areas," Rob Graham says, who was among 30 members of the department who assisted provincial crews.
"There were structures threatened, but that's why we were there."
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— With files from The Canadian Press