Lena Rae Gabriel was startled awake by her cousin knocking at her door at 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday warning her there was a fire above her house on the Penticton Indian Band land.
“You could see it the sky above our home on the hill … it was just red and smoke. I could see it flaring up,” said Gabriel.
BC Wildfire crews had called in the blaze at around 1 a.m., having spotted it while driving back to the Penticton base after working on a fire in West Kelowna.
A smaller wildfire (0.01 hectares) was still ignited from the day before, however the new one was growing quicker as the wind picked up. The fire was the third in the area in the past couple of days.
As the Penticton Indian Band Fire Department, Penticton Fire Department and BC Wildfire co-ordinated their efforts Gabriel quickly packed up clothes for her five kids. She grabbed a box of their school mementos and photos, ensured their animals (a rabbit and two guinea pigs) were evacuated and made the trip to family member’s house in a safer area.
“As we left, the fire department was just a few houses down working so I told them my address and that I had packed everyone up and we were leaving. When I got to my aunties, I could still see the fire blazing and that it was going down the hill towards my house but we couldn’t tell exactly how far down it was going,” said Gabriel.
It wasn’t until about 5 a.m. she finally got her kids calmed down enough to sleep, an hour later she got an update that the fire was very close to her home of eight years. Six residences were eventually evacuated at the perimeter of the fire.
“I knew the crews were working hard at containing it and trying their best to keep it away from the homes,” said Gabriel.
The fire grew to nine hectares before crews got a handle on it around 9 a.m., pushing the status to held.
“We are very thankful that the firefighting crews stayed throughout the night and the fact that no homes were lost, that was amazing,” said Gabriel. “When we got home we could see just how close it got. From the back of my house the burned ground is maybe three or four car lengths away.”
The Penticton Indian Band posted a message on social media thanking the other departments for collaborating and for the quick response. Evacuations have been downgraded to alerts.
“Residents can return home, but are still on alert and still need to be prepared to leave in case of re-ignition,” the PIB wrote in their post.
RCMP Const. James Grandy said the fire, along with two others in the area, are under investigation.
“Our Aboriginal policing unit is engaged as well as the Penticton Fire Department and the Penticton Indian Department. At this point it is undetermined what the cause is, but it is obviously suspicious,” he said.
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