Conair pilot Grahame Wilson drops a load of fire retardant on the interface fire in Kaleden. Mark Brett/Western News

Fire and water – news story of the year

Mother Nature is always one of the top newsmakers

Mother Nature, with some help from humans, is certainly a contender for newsmaker of the year.

Starting at the beginning of May, a higher snowpack than normal, combined with rainfall and unseasonably warm weather to create perfect conditions for flooding.

“It’s been recorded that the snowpack is 140 per cent higher than normal and that’s due to the higher amount of remain we’ve had over the last month. The snow is going to start melting and with the rain and thunderstorms we’re expecting, the water is on the rise,” said Dale Kronebusch, emergency services supervisor for the Regional District Okanagan-Similkameen, in an interview in early May.

Kronebusch was spot on, as water levels kept climbing in creeks and streams all around the Okanagan, some of them running for the first time in a quarter-century. It became a flood watch over the next six weeks keeping a close eye on Okanagan Lake as it inched higher and higher, reaching once in 200-year flood levels.

Warnings started early for those in the flood path to prepare for the worst, sandbagging and preparing essentials if it came down to an evacuation order.

Related: Red Wing resort in danger of flooding

By June, the lake had reached 343.17 metres, higher than the 1948 flood, which peaked at about 343 metres. With more rain and storms on the way, the lake was projected to rise still farther.

In Penticton, over 75,000 sandbags had been put out by the end of May.

“Everything is armoured up as best we can. It’s just wait and see now,” said Peter Weeber, Penticton’s chief administrative officer. “We’re not so concerned about high water as we are about wave action coming in as a result of some weather coming in.”

Related: Water levels continue to rise

Another area of concern was the bridge by the Art Gallery, where Penticton Creek was running level with the walkway.

“If we get any kind of major trees or anything coming down jamming into that bridge, that hydraulic pressure will just flip that bridge over,” said Weeber.

That didn’t happen, but despite the sandbagging efforts the city still suffered damage along the shorelines, as wind-driven waves drove the water hard against the beaches and structures like the Kiwanis Walking Pier and the breakwater around the marina, both of which took heavy damage.

Damages from the flooding and the storms that whipped up the lake came to a bill of over $620,000 for Penticton. Another $1 million was recently added to that bill for the damage the rushing waters did in Penticton and Ellis Creeks.

In Summerland, the municipality declared a state of emergency at one point for the low-lying Trout Creek area, including shutting off electricity to a number of properties as the groundwater rose high enough to submerge electrical connections in underground vaults and junction boxes.

There wasn’t much time to relax as the waters began to recede in late June, there wasn’t much time to relax. It wasn’t long before wildfires began to blaze around the province, forcing thousands to be evacuated from their homes, and tens of thousands more placed on evacuation alert.

The South Okanagan got its first taste of what was to come on July 5, when a small fire broke out in Kaleden. Quick action by local firefighters and Ministry of Forests crews brought it under control and held it down to just 6.5 hectares, but not before it consumed a home in the small community.

Related: Kaleden resident in ‘utter shock’

“It was a just utter shock,” Russell Layton said, who wasn’t home when the fire started. “Everything that had value to me and my parents is gone.”

Some of the biggest fires of 2017 were located in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region, including what came to be known as the Plateau fire, the result of 19 fires merging in an area east of Quesnel, consuming an estimated 521,012 hectares, the largest fire in B.C. history.

Related: Winds anticipated factor for Plateau fire

Large fires near Summerland (2,224 hectares) and Princeton (3,197 hectares) also came uncomfortably close to homes, prompting evacuations in both areas.

Related: Firefighters conduct controlled burns on Finlay Creek wildfire

In Penticton itself, the story was the smoke filling the valley from both local fires and large burns south of the border in Washington State. Despite some cancellations early in July, tourism in the area appeared to rebound after Travel Penticton started a push to convince visitors that Penticton is “still happening.”

“It is why we are using ‘still happening’ as our slogan right now. It can’t make it any more clearer that Skaha Beach is in wicked shape and we are getting more and more beach back from Okanagan Lake. We need to get the message out to the world that we are in good shape here,” said Thom Tischik, executive director of Travel Penticton.

Related: Penticton having a “brilliant” summer

The real story of the fires may have been the reaching out by many people, both to support the crews working to the point of exhaustion on the fires. Schools, universities, and homes opened up to receive evacuees from across the province. In Penticton, the South Okanagan Events Centre and the community centre opened their doors, first to evacuees from the Princeton fire, then to Williams Lake, where the entire city was put under evacuation order in mid-July.

“Most of them are concerned about their houses. They’re trying to get communication as to when they’ll be going back, how the fire’s doing,” said Penticton’s emergency social services director Bonny Billups. “And making sure their family is safe and trying to find family members, which is part of our job, is reunification along with the Red Cross.”

Related: Penticton evacuation centre looking for volunteers

There were stories of all sorts of heroism during the fire season. One of the most touching was that of Sophie and Tad, two sheepdogs who stayed behind in the Gustafsen fire zone, making sure their 89 charges stayed safe despite the raging fire.

“I can’t imagine for them, with them trying to keep the sheep together, what they thought of the helicopters going overhead and all the flames,” said owner Lynn Landry, who were forced to leave the animals behind when they were evacuated on short notice. “It must have been hotter than you can imagine with the flames coming on both sides towards our place.”

Related: Dogs stick with sheep through wildfire

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