The Penticton Fire Department's rescue boat at the scene of a plane crash on Skaha Lake in April 2011.

The Penticton Fire Department's rescue boat at the scene of a plane crash on Skaha Lake in April 2011.

Storm sparks flurry of rescue calls on Okanagan lakes

Emergency workers from Penticton, Naramata, Summerland and Peachland were all on the water Friday to help boaters in distress

Emergency responders took to the water Friday afternoon, as an intense thunderstorm sparked a flurry of marine rescue calls on local lakes.

“People were just overwhelmed by the sudden change of weather,” said Naramata Fire Chief Will McCutcheon.

His department first dispatched its rescue boat to a report of a capsized sailboat on Okanagan Lake near the Summerland Marina. Upon arrival, rescuers found the sailboat on its side with its mast in the water, and helped the two people aboard get the vessel righted.

“They were actually doing pretty good,” McCutcheon said of the sailors, but “left alone they would have been floundering until someone else came along.”

The Naramata team then motored to a report of a small boat in the middle of the lake that was being pounded by wind and waves. McCutcheon said three females aboard that craft were unharmed and picked up by another boater.

A third call was sent to the Naramata team of a craft beached on the rocks near Okanagan Mountain Park, however, the chief said his crew was tied up so the report was passed to the Peachland Fire Department.

McCutcheon praised the boaters who assisted the fire department and those in distress, and said the quick onset of the storm highlights the need for life-jackets.

“A lot of people have them” in their boats, he said, but “people really need to wear them.”

While the Naramata crew battled the elements on Okanagan Lake, the Penticton Fire Department was dispatched to Skaha Lake after a man was spotted clinging to the side of a boat.

By the time rescuers arrived, however, the distressed boater had already been picked up by another vessel, said Capt. Ken Fotherby. The department then received report that a wind-surfer had gone under, but the person was able to make it back to shore safely before help arrived.

Fotherby said Friday’s storm made for bumpy water.

“It was pretty violent there for a while, and then all of a sudden it just stopped,” he said.

“If it gets really windy and you can see the weather change like that, get to shore.”

Meanwhile, the Summerland Fire Department was called out during the storm to check on a boat spotted bobbing in Okanagan Lake off Peach Orchard Road. Assistant Fire Chief Chad Gartrell said the boat was anchored, however, with no one aboard.

The storm also caused significant damage on land in Oliver, where it uprooted trees and damaged a building-supply store’s roof.

More calls came in on Sunday evening when the wind whipped up again and lightning storms rolled through. Penticton Deputy Chief Dave Spalding said they were called out to Okanagan Lake around 8:47 p.m. when a rafter found himself in trouble. People onboard a dragon boat noticed a man hugging his raft after being pushed out too far exiting the river channel to swim back to shore. The dragon boat provided assistance until the fire department got there to take him to shore. A second call came in at 9:20 p.m. on Okanagan Lake, with Naramata assisting. Spalding said the two departments searched the lake for an hour and a half before coming across three people in a boat that had lost power and was drifting around. The fire departments towed the boat and got the occupants safely to shore.

“A strong message we want to put forward is that we always get winds that whip up without too much notice on the lakes and we get these thunderstorms that come around. People really have to watch the weather and listen to the weather reports. Certainly both Friday and Sunday, there were thunderstorm watches issued and warnings of possible high winds, damaging winds and hail,” said Spalding.

The high winds on Okanagan Lake on Sunday evening caused damage to the Penticton Fire Department boat, which is now under repair and Spalding expects they won’t get it back until after the weekend.  Until then, Naramata Fire Department and Okanagan Falls Fire Department will continue to provide rescue service.