Kelowna, B.C. residents who are originally from Thunder Bay, Ont. say it’s been a scary week watching homes destroyed by fire and breathing air thick with wildfire smoke.
Hundreds of residents of the Kelowna area were evacuated the week of Aug. 14 as the McDougall Creek wildfire approached the City of West Kelowna, destroyed homes and businesses, including the historic Lake Okanagan Resort, and then jumped lake to the City of Kelowna.
On Wednesday, officials estimated that the fire had destroyed more than 180 properties.
“It was crazy to watch people literally losing their houses on the far side with nothing that could be done about it,” said Andrew Bryan, a teacher and parent in Kelowna who grew up in Thunder Bay.
“And going from a feeling of safety on this side to suddenly, ‘Yeah, that could be us next. We could be next to lose our houses.'”
Bryan’s home is on the south end of the city of Kelowna, near its famed orchards, and he’d calculated the odds of it being damaged by fire at less than five per cent.
But he said, he didn’t want to be too confident.
“We had all already said that it can’t happen to us. It can’t jump the lake,” he said.
“And then so many people found, yes, it absolutely could.”
Bryan invited people into his home who needed a place to stay and ended up hosting a family of friends and a woman from the Philippines and her five-year-old son.
For three days, he said, they stayed inside and built air purifiers out of furnace filters and box fans because the air had turned black and yellow from smoke.
“It felt like some sort of apocalyptic movie,” he said.
“You could look out your window and look across to West Kelowna, depending on where the wind was, and just see giant lines of fire going down over, you know, your friend’s houses. It was scary. It was totally nuts.”
Thunder Bay-raised, Kelowna-based athlete Mia Serratore also described the scene as “kind of like an apocalypse.”
‘one of the craziest things I’d ever seen’
Serratore was camping in the United States when the fire first approached Kelowna, and she spent the first few days struggling to find news online given that Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has blocked Canadian news organizations from posting on its platforms – an act of retaliation against Canada’s Online News Act, which forces them to pay to host the links.
She found videos online taken by people in Kelowna who were filming the fire approaching across the lake.
“It was one of the craziest things I’d ever seen,” she said.
She was both relieved to be away from the city as the fire approached and scared because their possessions were in Kelowna, and they hadn’t been prepared to evacuate.
She arrived back in the city on Sunday.
“As I was getting closer and closer to the city, the smoke was getting thicker and thicker,” she said.
At times, it was so dense it was hard to see, she said.
Neither Serratore nor Bryan lost their homes in the fire, but Bryan said children from his kids’ summer camp did.
“There was a little girl there who lost her house and had moved to a friend’s house in West Kelowna further away,” he said.
“And that was on Thursday night. And on Friday she wasn’t at camp because the house that she had just moved to burned down – same as her first house.”