Evacuees from Parker Cove and other neighbourhoods at the south end of the Okanagan Indian Band’s I.R. #1, near Vernon, were finally given the go-ahead to return home on Saturday.
It was an emotional homecoming as most of the area had been on evacuation order due to the White Rock Lake wildfire for over a month.
Parker Cove resident Pauline Van Koll was among those forced to leave her home on August 1 as the growing fire menaced the westside of Okanagan Lake.
After weeks away from home, living in a motel, she and her neighbours learned on Saturday, Sept. 4, they could return.
“Oh my Lord, we were excited,” said Van Koll.
At times during the month-long displacement, Van Koll, like other evacuees, watched the flames from across the lake and wondered if she would have a house to come home to.
Many families had that fear realized as more than a hundred structures on the west side of Okanagan Lake and in the Thompson Nicola Regional District were damaged or lost to the blaze.
Van Koll was relieved to be returning to a standing house and grateful for the work that was done to protect her neighbourhood, but the destruction in the area was still difficult to see.
“It was devastating driving down Westside Rd….especially those who lost their houses,” she said.
Van Koll returned home Sunday along with many others and said it was “awesome” to be back.
“It was quite the traffic line coming home,” Van Koll said.
Van Koll said the area still smells like a wet campfire, but neighbours were happily welcoming each other back on Sunday.
The next step for Van Koll and others will be cleaning up after their month-long displacement: clearing out an overgrown garden, throwing out spoiled food from fridges and deodorizing belongings that currently smell like ash.
After the Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB) downgraded Parker Cove and the surrounding area to an evacuation alert on Saturday, the only OKIB area that remains on evacuation order due to the White Rock Lake wildfire is Mini-Shadows Road.
At some points during the crisis, the entirety of I.R. #1 was evacuated.
While many OKIB residents are still on evacuation alert, the lifting of almost all of the evacuation orders has also given emergency staff a reprieve.
“We will reopen Tuesday, September 7. The Emergency Operations Centre phone line will be monitored.”
Other jurisdictions, including the Thompson Nicola Regional District; Columbia Shuswap Regional District; and the Regional District of Central Okanagan, still have outstanding evacuation orders due to the White Rock Lake fire.
The massive 83,000 hecatare blaze that has been burning since mid-July was finally downgraded from “out of control” status to “being held” on Thursday.
An evacuation order means you must leave your home, while an evacuation alert means you can remain in your home but should be prepared to leave quickly if needed.