Provincial officials are asking visitors to avoid parts of the Okanagan due to the out-of-control White Rock Lake wildfire.
Estimated at 58,000 hectares, the sprawling fire burning in B.C.’s southern Interior showed no sign of slowing down on Friday, and one flank of the blaze was threatening several communities along the northwestern shores of Okanagan Lake.
In a late-afternoon news conference on Friday, the minister of public safety asked visitors to stay away from Armstrong, Spallumcheen, the Okanagan Indian Band, Enderby and parts of the Regional District of the North Okanagan.
“Over the next 72 hours, increased fire activity is forecast, including significant winds that may move many of our large fires quickly,” said public safety minister Mike Farnworth.
“While this is just a forecast at this point, Emergency Management B.C. is working with local government and First Nations in preparation to support evacuees should these conditions materialize.”
Farnworth continued, saying “at this point, we are asking tourists to avoid travel to certain parts of the Interior region until further notice.”
The province’s minister of forests, Katrine Conroy, said she flew over the fire “and quickly realized what a daunting task our crews are facing in fighting a fire like this one.
“The size and the intensity of the fire are difficult to imagine until you see it up close or from the air.”
Conroy noted that since April 1, there have been 1,488 wildfires that have burned 662,000 hectares. Currently, there are 268 active fires, with almost 3,700 personnel involved.
Farnworth said the province is taking “this proactive step because the safety of people and communities is paramount. We want to ensure that people in these communities will evacuate if necessary, access the support they need, as well as the safety of the firefighters on the ground.”
The wildfire has spawned several evacuation alerts and orders — issued by four regional districts, two First Nation bands plus the communities of Vernon and Spallumcheen.
According to BC Wildfire Service data, more resources are battling this fire than any other in the province.
As of Friday afternoon, there were 195 wildland firefighters on scene, along with 139 structure personnel, 16 helicopters, 15 danger-tree fallers and 73 pieces of heavy equipment.
For comparison, the Nk’Mip Creek wildfire that’s burning near Osoyoos is estimated at 17,812 hectares and has 192 firefighters and 10 structure protection personnel plus nine helicopters and 38 pieces of heavy equipment.
The Sparks Lake wildfire burning north of Kamloops Lake is the largest in the province at 70,976 hectares and has 110 firefighters on scene plus seven helicopters and 32 pieces of heavy equipment.
Farnworth said “while we are acting out of an abundance of caution, this situation is very serious and could very well get worse quickly. If you are planning to travel to this area, now is not the time to do so.
“Instead, consider visiting an area of the province where your presence won’t strain local resources and will have a positive impact.”
The minister also noted that Interior Health has advised that non-essential travel to the Central Okanagan should be avoided because of an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak in the region.
On Friday, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control announced 376 new cases for the Interior Health region. That was just over 50 per cent of the province’s total case counts at 717, even though the Interior Health region has a smaller population than the Fraser and Vancouver Health regions.