Penticton blaze sparks safety concerns

Steve Boultbee stands outside the burnt remains of his neighbour
Steve Boultbee stands outside the burnt remains of his neighbour's home in the 1100-block of Spiller Road Tuesday afternoon. He and others in the area are urging the city to look at providing improved water service for firefighting following Saturday's early-morning blaze.
— image credit: Mark Brett

Last month’s unusually soggy conditions may have prevented a potentially horrific interface fire last weekend.

Despite being hampered by a lack of water availability, firefighters were able to prevent a blaze at a multi-level structure at 1133 Spiller Rd. from igniting the surrounding wooded area and destroying other nearby homes.

Now one area property owner is again raising concerns about the need for improved water service for firefighting in the event those living in the region are not so lucky next time around.

“If this had been a normal July 1st weekend and we had the 30-30-30 situation — 30 degrees Celsius, 30-degree humidity and 30-kilometre winds from any direction, we would have had a replica of Kelowna (August, 2003)” said Steve Boultbee, who lives about a 100 yards from the building that went up in flames early Saturday morning. “We were all sleeping and that house would have burnt to the ground, and likely the 14 other residences as well.

“The (possible) fire I’m talking about relative to Kelowna goes down into the city (Penticton) from here or sweeps into Naramata, and given the state of the forest and all the fuel that’s in it, we’re talking an enormous fire — we’re talking lives. Something given the right circumstances could be enormously catastrophic.”

In the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire nine years ago, 250 square kilometres and over 200 buildings were destroyed. About 27,000 people were evacuated.

Boultbee was first alerted to the situation when he heard the lone siren of a fire truck about 1 a.m.

As he walked down the stairs from his bedroom, he noticed his ground floor office was completely illuminated, and once outside he saw flames shooting into the night sky over top of the 60-foot ponderosa pines surrounding the house.

“As I walked towards it, it was bright and it was going like hell,” he recalled. “I could feel the heat, but it was strange because it was so quiet.”

Two trucks and four firefighters were first on the scene, and he helped the crews as they struggled with the two fires, but because the nearest hydrant was nearly three kilometres away on Naramata Road, there was little they could do.

“They were a true team, everybody’s moving pretty quick, no panic, clearly well-trained men, fabulous equipment, but what do you do with the best trained men and the best equipment and no water when it comes to fighting a fire?” said Boultbee. “Here is this friggin house fire that’s totally out of control, and if it had been drier and windy you go into evacuation mode and that’s the only thing those guys could have done.”

The first two trucks are only able to carry 600-800 gallons of water, which only lasted a matter of minutes before they needed refilling.

The city’s larger tender truck, which holds 3,500 gallons and has a portable tank, arrived sometime later, but even that supply only lasts 10-12 minutes.

“Under normal circumstances, by the time the tender gets here it’s ancient history,” he said.

Additional support was also eventually provided by the Naramata Volunteer Fire Department and B.C. Forest Service.

There was only one person at the house at the time of the fire, a renter who was in a downstairs suite. He escaped unharmed.

Capt. Howard Grantham of the Penticton Fire Department agreed the situation could have been much worse.

“We are fortunate because if it had been drier or this had been the end of July, we could have had some real serious problems for the other homes in the area,” he said. “This was within two or three houses of the actual end of our fire protection boundary and there is no water supply out there.

“It lit the trees and grass on fire, so one truck was working at keeping that at bay while the other truck was trying to do some work on the house fire,” said Grantham. “We ended up having to shuttle water, which made it very difficult. The boys had a tough time.”

Boultbee pointed out the issue has been raised with the city before and there was even a draft plan being considered which would see the installation of a large holding tank on nearby municipal property.

“Now we need council to  say yes we’re going to spend the money, to pull the trigger on it. There’s nothing stopping them other than somebody signing the purchase order,” he said.

According to Fire Chief Wayne Williams, city officials were to begin working with a consulting firm Tuesday on a review of all aspects of department services, including those for the more rural areas like Spiller Road.

The cause of Saturday’s fire is unknown.


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