A massive wildfire burning in British Columbia's southern interior has forced
one-third of Kelowna's population from their homes and destroyed more than 200
houses in the city.┬
About 30,000 people have left their homes in the Okanagan city. Another 8,000
people are on a one-hour evacuation notice.
Fire officials estimate 203 homes were destroyed by fire, which has grown to
19,000 hectares in size.
Kelowna Fire Chief Gerry Zimmerman called Friday night "the roughest night in Kelowna firefighting history."
"We got hammered pretty good," he said.
An emotional Zimmerman praised the efforts of firefighters, saying their morale is a "little bruised." Losing homes to the fire is disheartening, but for every lost house, many others were saved "because of their guts," he said.
Despite all the damage, the B.C. Ambulance Service reports no serious injuries. Four firefighters have been treated for minor injuries such as smoke inhalation, cuts and debris lodged in their eyes.
Psychologists have been brought in to assist firefighters, who one official described as "exhausted and overwhelmed."
Prime Minister Jean Chr├ętien will interrupt his tour of the Eastern Arctic to visit areas affected by the wildfires, his office said on Saturday. A spokesperson for the Prime Minister's Office said Chr├ętien will be on the ground on Sunday to see the damage for himself.
Winds are fanning the flames, which are more than 100 metres high in some areas. Officials pulled some firefighters from the scene overnight because conditions were so unpredictable.
"This fire is obviously the worst thing that we've ever seen in this city," said Zimmerman.
Kelowna resident Yolanda Overton learned Saturday her home burned down. "We've lost our home. It's dreadful. We're devastated," said Overton.
While people in the town have banded together, Overton said there's a sense of numbness at the extent of the loss.
"The town has really rallied. We know we're battling a war of fire out there."
Police drove through the city Friday night with bullhorns, ordering about 20,000 people to leave. They joined 10,000 people who were ordered out a day earlier.
Registration centres in the city's downtown were overwhelmed and shut down as people slept in hockey rinks, churches and in their cars.
By Saturday morning, the winds were calm, allowing crews to survey the affected neighbourhoods.
Red Cross spokesperson Phil Bond says people can inquire about friends and family in the Kelowna area if they have checked in at a registration centre by calling 1-888-350-6070.