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Penticton, B.C., mayor says he won’t kick out tourists to free up rooms for possible wildfire evacuees

Penticton Mayor John Vassilaki speaks to reporters at a press briefing regarding the Christie Mountain wildfire on Sunday, Aug. 23., 2020. Shelby Thom/Global News

With hotel and motel rooms at or near capacity in Penticton, B.C., a tourism hot-spot in the Interior, the city’s mayor says he won’t kick out tourists to free-up space for possible fire evacuees if the threat posed by the nearby Christie Mountain wildfire increases once again.

John Vassilaki made the comments at a Sunday press briefing in response to a question by Global News, as officials provided an update on the latest developments regarding the 2,035-hectare wildfire.

Read more: Christie Mountain wildfire evacuation order could be rescinded ‘in coming days:’ officials

“I wouldn’t want to be a heavy-handed mayor in this situation. I think tourists have the right to be here,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Penticton residents get reassuring news about Christie Mountain wildfire' Penticton residents get reassuring news about Christie Mountain wildfire
Penticton residents get reassuring news about Christie Mountain wildfire – Aug 22, 2020

“There is no other place for them to go that they can really come and have a holiday, get out of their homes, and they have been locked up for the last two or three months,” referencing the COVID-19 pandemic and related travel restrictions earlier this year.

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Some social media posts from concerned local residents suggest local taxpayers should be made a priority in the event of an emergency and recommend that tourists be asked to leave.

Penticton Chief Administrative Officer Donny van Dyk said he is confident that anyone displaced by the fire and needs accommodations will have a roof over their head.

Read more: 305 homes on evacuation alert due to wildfire in Slocan Valley

“Should the alert become an order, the city would first declare a state of local emergency, which would give us the powers required to free-up any hotel space we may need,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Changing winds pose new concern for Christie Mountain wildfire' Changing winds pose new concern for Christie Mountain wildfire
Changing winds pose new concern for Christie Mountain wildfire – Aug 22, 2020

“We have a high degree of confidence in over 1,000 hotel rooms currently across the Okanagan Valley, and that has been confirmed with the excellent work of our ESS team.”

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Vassilaki says his own home is in the evacuation alert zone and added “the stress level of citizens in Penticton is down tenfold,” praising the efforts of firefighters.

Approximately 3,700 homes and businesses remain on evacuation alert as of Sunday due to the out-of-control wildfire burning southeast of Penticton since Tuesday.

Read more: Christie Mountain wildfire: Blaze grew an estimated 35 hectares, says BC Wildfire Service

Fire officials have said fire activity remained minimal over the weekend and there is no longer an urgent or immediate threat to hillside properties in the area, but cautioned fire activity can be unpredictable and change quickly.

Click to play video: 'Fight to contain the Christie Mountain fire turns into tense wait for residents near Penticton' Fight to contain the Christie Mountain fire turns into tense wait for residents near Penticton
Fight to contain the Christie Mountain fire turns into tense wait for residents near Penticton – Aug 21, 2020

The Heritage Hills subdivision remains under an evacuation order, but the local regional district said on Sunday it could be rescinded “in the coming days.”

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Penticton Fire Chief Larry Watkinson said there were some close calls, but no additional structures have been lost since one home in Heritage Hills was destroyed on Tuesday night.

“There has been fires that have burned right up to the lines that we established, but it did not ignite the homes based on our efforts for structure protection,” he said on Sunday.

For more information on the evacuation order and alert areas, click here. 

The BC Wildfire Service’s “Fires of Note” page can be found here.

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