Kelowna trucker battled Highway 97 wildfire before crews arrived; thinks it was caused by cigarette | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Kelowna trucker battled Highway 97 wildfire before crews arrived; thinks it was caused by cigarette

A scorched hillside after a wildfire started along Highway 97 near Coldstream, July 9, 2021.
Image Credit: Ben Bulmer
July 10, 2021 - 3:09 PM

A Kelowna trucker who was one of the first on the scene of Friday night's wildfire in Coldstream says he thinks it was sparked by a discarded cigarette.

Thomas Neufeld was driving home July 9 just before 10 p.m. when he noticed a small fire off the side of Highway 97. He pulled over and grabbed a fire extinguisher to try and douse the flames while a Saskatchewan couple  and two Alberta residents in their own cars did the same.

“It was just a small little fire, like maybe a few feet in diameter, so having a fire extinguisher in our trucks, I thought ‘hey let’s see if we can get at this before it becomes something serious,’” he said.

“It was on the side of the hill and climbed that hill so fast that I was unable to really do a whole lot about it. In my opinion, the location of where the fire was, it was nighttime, it was dark outside so it wasn’t from the sun beating down from a piece of metal or glass. It was right on the side of the roadway where easily a butt could have been tossed out the window and landed in the grass and caused a fire,” he said.

The wildfire quickly spread, and caused the evacuation of residents along Clerke Road. Today, July 10, residents have been able to return home but many are still on an evacuation alert. The fire is classified as being held, which means the B.C. Wildfire Service doesn’t expect it to grow larger than its current 43 hectares in size.

READ MORE: Wildfire that caused an evacuation of North Okanagan residents being held

Carrie Urquhart, who lives along College Drive, watched the wildfire burn above her home last night.

“The hillside is pretty charred and we’ve been watching the helicopters since the break of dawn pretty much here, bucketing on it. They’ve got it held but it’s still smoking and smouldering up there,” she said.

She’s lived in the Okanagan on and off for the last 40 years and she said the seasons seem to be getting hotter and drier.

“It just seems like it’s kind of the way it is. It seems like it’s the new normal everywhere and there’s no escaping it,” she said. “We’ve definitely had fire evacuation talks and gathered documents in case we might need to leave quickly.”

She feels safer in a community protected by a fire department with fire hydrants and services than she would outside of the community, she said.

B.C. Wildfire Service information officer Madison Smith said B.C. Wildfire will be investigating the cause of the fire which is currently unknown. There were no lightning strikes reported in the area around that time, she said.

Rumours circulating on Facebook about it being caused by an accident are incorrect, Neufeld said, since he didn’t see any accidents near the fire or on his way home. First responders arrived on the scene roughly 20 to 25 minutes after calls were made, but by then the blaze had already spread up the hillside, he said.

“Within less than a minute that fire went from a small little fire to just a raging wildfire going up that mountain,” he said. “I sprayed what I could on the edge of the fire and tried to slow it down… but there was so much burning at that time.”

He questioned why it took emergency responders that much time to show up. “That fire was able to get out of control so quickly with barely any response to it… I’m pretty shocked about that.”

“A couple of fire trucks showed up and then they called for backup,” he said.

B.C. Wildfire crews are on maximum alerts which means crews have to be ready to go as soon as a call arrives and times to get to fires depend on how far away crews are from them, Smith said.

In this instance, firefighters who responded last night were stationed in the Vernon fire zone which is close to the fire, she said.

“We respond within 30 minutes, that’s what we’re required to do, but since this was an agency assist fire, the B.C. Wildfire Service wasn’t the first to get the call,” she said, adding local fire departments would have been the first to arrive and would have called for assistance from B.C. Wildfire.

The Coldstream Fire Department and District of Coldstream could not be immediately reached for comment.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Carli Berry or call 250-864-7494 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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