"IT WAS VERY, VERY SCARY"
PENTICTON - A camping trip turned into a nightmare for a Penticton couple thanks to the wildfires raging in Washington State.
Penticton city Coun. Helena Konanz and her husband Adam were forced to cut short the mid-week holiday when wildfires had them beating a hasty retreat from Winthrop yesterday, August 19.
“We were staying at the KOA Campground, right in Winthrop," Helena says. "There was a lot of smoke, ever since we arrived, because of the Chelan fire, but it wasn’t too bad, depending on the wind.”
The two were cooling off in the river when, at about 3:30 p.m. a truck drove through the campground announcing a Level Two evacuation.
Konanz says some campers threw their equipment into their vehicles and left while others seemed totally complacent about the order.
“We thought we’d better go,” she says, noting it was a wise decision because even as they were packing up, a huge smoke plume appeared on the horizon and the evacuation order suddenly became a Level Three alert.
“The big issue was we were told Highway 20 west had been blocked by a landslide," Konanz says. "There was a fear everyone in Winthrop would be trapped if they didn’t leave to the south."
The Penticton couple were assured by conservation officials it was safe to take Highway 20 east, but were advised to be wary as other fires in the Omak area were gaining strength.
“They said, ‘we’re not really sure what’s safe, to tell you the truth.'"
Helena described the situation as “very panicky.”
“We knew we had to get out of there. We could see dozens of forestry vehicles, driving from house to house, evacuating,” she says.
As the couple were leaving Winthrop, they passed several firefighters by the side of the road on stretchers being loaded onto an ambulance, learning later three firefighters had been killed fighting the fire.
The firefighters were on initial attack when they were involved in a vehicle accident and investigators believe the fire then overtook the vehicle.
As they drove back towards Highway 97, Konanz says the sky continued to get darker and darker. When they reached the highway, they faced another gauntlet of flame as a fire burning near North Omak spread out along both sides of the highway, she says.
“The highway had been closed the day before, which we were unaware, so we were just lucky to get through,” she says, noting that fire has since resulted in an evacuation of the community of Riverside and areas north of Omak early this morning.
“It was very, very scary.”
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