Euphoria of returning home shattered after B.C. fire evacuees find houses looted

WEST KELOWNA, B.C. - Thousands of West Kelowna, B.C., residents have streamed happily back to their homes as a wildfire threat receded but the joy of return was shattered for some who found their homes looted.

WEST KELOWNA, B.C. - Thousands of West Kelowna, B.C., residents have streamed happily back to their homes as a wildfire threat receded but the joy of return was shattered for some who found their homes looted.

Wayne Desabrais said Wednesday the fire that forced 10,000 people to flee their homes started right next door, incinerating his neighbour's residence.

"The (police) came up and said evacuate now so my wife didn't get a chance to lock all the doors, he said."

"The next morning, they were watering our house down. The fire department noticed the house was breached."

Thieves made off with jewelry, computers, cameras, a quad bike and possibly more.

"We haven't managed to get in to actually look through all the drawers."

Desabrais' house was among at least 10 that RCMP say were hit by looters.

RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk said he's hoping the despicable nature of the crime will lead to it being solved.

"Perhaps we'll get some anonymous information that somebody will be sitting by their buddy and see what he or she did and say, 'That's not right,"' he said.

Desabrais said his wife feels violated and he feels that whoever is responsible for the robberies let down the entire community.

Everyone in West Kelowna, which sits across Okanagan Lake from the city of Kelowna, worked so hard to help out in the crisis and discovering the looting is a real disappointment, he said.

"It really upsets us all. It upsets my neighbours, the whole community, everybody we talk to about this ... It outrages us all, Desabrais said."

But then he added: "We're just happy everybody's fine. It's just stuff, right?"

Barbara Kreibom isn't as sanguine.

Kreibom returned home to find her 12-year-old son's X-box 360 game system and iPod were stolen.

"I can't even think of a word that would even describe these kind of people, that would prey on other people's devastation," she said.

"It's just downright inhumane as far as I'm concerned."

Kreibom said the thieves appear to have come in through a sliding door.

"Without getting any sleep for three days and then coming home, I felt great, and then I just stood there, stunned," she said. "I was just devastated."

Ross and Eunice Gorman had similar feelings, but for a different reason.

Wednesday was their first chance to get a look at the pile of rubble that used to be their son's home.

The family owns Gorman Bros. Lumber Ltd., and two of the three houses that were incinerated in the weekend blaze belonged to them.

All that was left of one of them was a brick chimney. A classic car parked behind the home was also scorched.

"It's a pretty sick feeling," said Ross Gorman.

Gorman and his brother John first opened the mill in 1951 and it now employees 300 full-time workers.

The mill reopened Wednesday morning and spokesman Nick Arkle said workers are doing whatever they can to get the facility running again as quickly as possible.

"Our interest is to get people back to work," Arkle said, adding that the company has orders to meet.

He praised the mill's workers for going above and beyond the call of duty when the fire broke out.

"We had a crew that was about to leave the plant. When they saw the fire and saw the mill was at imminent risk, they stayed," he said.

"That was probably a major factor in why the mill is standing today."

Arkle said the workers helped the fire crews locate fire hydrants and hoses and pointed out any trouble spots.

When embers spread and ignited some of the company's standing lumber, the employees forklifted the burning material away, at great risk to themselves.

"The workers were fantastic," said Eunice Gorman.

"Our own men, I know one said he came and worked until midnight fighting the fire and he went home and found all his neighbours were gone. They had all been evacuated."

The Regional District of Central Okanagan announced Wednesday morning that approximately 2,800 people still out of their homes due to fires in the Glenrosa and Rose Valley areas would be allowed to return at 5 p.m.

"It has been a difficult few days and the emergency isn't over, but the news that the Glenrosa and Rose Valley fires are close to full containment is most welcome," said Jason Johnson, director of the district's emergency operations centre.

The Glenrosa fire sparked rapidly Saturday afternoon to a four-square kilometre blaze by Sunday, forcing 10,000 people to flee.

The Rose Valley fire proved difficult firefighters to attack because of the rugged terrain, leading to the evacuation of another 1,200 people.

Johnson said tremendous progress was made on fighting both blazes and crews were expected to have them completely under control.

Residents were reminded a contained fire is different from one that's been completely extinguished.

Those who had their evacuation order rescinded were told they will remain on evacuation alert, meaning they could again be forced out at a moment's notice.

But those at the evacuee centre said they're just glad they have a home to go back to.

"Cannot wait to go home," said Cathy Dobbin.

Added Janice Sneddon, who was with her: "It was like a gift from God."

Dobbin said the first thing she will do when she finally gets home is kiss her house, if it's still there. She's pretty sure it is.

Joy Oliver said the mood inside the evacuee centre when the evacuation order was downgraded was euphoric.

"Oh my gosh, everybody just clapped and they were so excited," she said.

"I'm just so elated. We were in one hotel and now they put us in another one and it's like you're living in a suitcase kind of thing. And not knowing if you could lose your home."

B.C. Lieutenant Governor Steven Point visited the evacuee centre Wednesday and said it could prove to be a valuable learning experience.

"I'm very impressed at the level of organization and the volunteers that have come in to help out from other parts of British Columbia and the resources that they've been able to bring to bear to assist the communities here," he said.

"I think that we're learning valuable lessons here."

As West Kelowna residents were returning home, 13 residents of Fintry, B.C., just north of Kelowna, were having to evacuate because of the 18-square-kilometre Terrace Mountain blaze.

The 13 residents are on 10 properties in the mostly rural area. An evacuation alert has also been issued for 2,200 residents in nearby communities.

 
 
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