Fire season slows down

Heading into the last long weekend of the summer, campfire bans have been lifted for most of B.C. as the forest fire season slows down.

Heading into the last long weekend of the summer, campfire bans have been lifted for most of B.C. as the forest fire season slows down.

Evacuation orders for the Testalinden Creek fire were downgraded to alerts Monday as cooling weather helped firefighters make progress.

“Cooler temperatures, slightly calmer winds, and the little bit of precipitation we have had over the last couple of days has certainly helped slow the fire activity and aided our firefighting activity,” said Heather Rice, an information officer with the BC Wildfire Service.

“The fire hasn’t really moved since it did that bit of a run on Friday and Saturday morning,” said Rice. “We are still sitting at 4,295 hectares and looking at 60 per cent contained.”

Shifting winds increased activity on the fire on Aug. 28, with open flame visible from Oliver and along Highway 97, as the fire burned northward to Reed and Tinhorn creeks.

That prompted an expanded evacuation alert from the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen, which was later upgraded to an evacuation order for some areas. That evacuation order has since been lifted, but the alert remains in effect for homes north of Testalinden Creek and west of Oliver.

“We certainly feel like we are starting to make more positive progress on the fire,” said Rice. “With this co-operation from the weather, we are getting a lot of success.”

Despite the expanded evacuation alert area for the Testalinden Creek fire, winery owner Sandra Oldfield says it’s business as usual at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards.

“It hasn’t yet crested the fold in the mountainside for us to see it above our winery. We see the smoke, but we don’t see the fire itself,” said Oldfield.

Oldfield, who was preparing to meet a tour group when she spoke to the Western News Friday, said Tinhorn and other wineries in the area remain open for visitors have even begun picking grapes, about 2.5 weeks ahead of usual, thanks to this summer’s weather.

“There is a natural stoppage for this fire as it starts hitting properties,” said Oldfield, listing green vineyards, irrigation, roadways around the properties and natural breaks in the terrain.

“For me, I think the likelihood is low that we will have any immediate problems with the fire. On the other side of things, both the fire department and our winery are really well prepared,” said Oldfield, who isn’t taking the danger casually.

“If I sound calm, it is because we have rehearsed this a lot. At Tinhorn, we have a super rigorous health and safety program. We have been rehearsing evacuations off our property twice a year for the last five years,” said Oldfield, adding that the winery has received top honours from Worksafe B.C. for its programs.

“All of our employees are familiar with how to evacuate and how to evacuate customers. It is something we practice all the time,” she said.

Changing weather has also helped with the Stickpin fire, burning five kilometres south of the Canada/U.S. border. Cooler temperatures and rain have played a significant part in helping suppress the fire, which is estimated at 21,638 hectares in size, and was a significant source of the smoke filling the Okanagan Valley last week.

The Wilson’s Mountain fire, which broke out at the same time as Testalinden, was listed as 100 per cent contained at 317 hectares on Aug. 24.

The Rock Creek fire is also under control. As of noon on Aug. 31, the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary rescinded the evacuation alert for all areas of Rock Creek, Westbridge, and Christian Valley. Wildfire crews continue to work on hotspots within the fire perimeter, patrol and mop up along the fire boundary. Thirty homes and 15 additional structures were damaged or destroyed in the blaze, which started on Aug. 13 and scorched 4,417 hectares before it was contained.

The B.C. Wildfire Service responded to seven new fires over the weekend, some suspected to be human caused.

Total cost and damage for the 2015 forest fire season continues to track at a similar pace as last year, with 296,000 hectares burned and $255 million spent as of Monday. That’s above the 10-year average for B.C. fires, but lower than the worst seasons in recent years, in 2003 and 2009.

Campfire bans are lifted in the Kamloops and Southeast fire centres, although restrictions continue on the use of burn barrels and fireworks. No fire bans remain across northern B.C., and the only remaining campfire ban is in the Cariboo fire centre for areas west of the Fraser River.

“Even though campfires are now allowed, we do still monitor the compliance. They have to keep it small,” said Melissa Klassen of the B.C. Wildfire Service. “We don’t want the public to be negligent out there, even with the cooler conditions.”