Kelowna caretaker stays with property despite evacuation order; says he's safe

KELOWNA, B.C. - His neighbours grabbed family photos and pets and fled, but Brante Farrell donned a gas mask and heavy overalls and turned on the sprinklers.

KELOWNA, B.C. - His neighbours grabbed family photos and pets and fled, but Brante Farrell donned a gas mask and heavy overalls and turned on the sprinklers.

Farrell said Sunday he feels quite safe flouting the evacuation order that has sent 11,000 people fleeing from a wind-whipped wildfire that has consumed at least three homes and destroyed other buildings.

"The danger has really seemed distant, Farrell, 25, said in a telephone interview from the estate he is caring for."

"I know it could move in quickly, but I'm keeping a good ear on the radio and I've got people watching from the distance. They're going to phone me if they hear anything."

RCMP say there are few evacuee refuseniks like Farrell. Forests Minister Pat Bell had harsh, frustrated words for anyone who thinks its a good idea to stay in the evacuation zone.

"(It's) an absolutely boneheaded idea, Bell said."

"This fire has the potential to be very volatile. If we see any sort of substantive winds, it can turn around and come up behind you and you will have no way out. So the best decision that anyone can make at this point, if you're in the evacuation area is to get out."

B.C. Public Safety Minister Kash Heed said they have seen the devastation of forest fires - even in less than 30 seconds.

"We'll will do what ever we can to mitigate the circumstances." Heed said. "But I don't want to put emergency personnel in harms way to go in and rescue someone that's ignoring an evacuation order."

But Farrell said he is tending to the property with a close eye on what's happening in the woods nearby.

He's making sure the hedges surrounding the estate are well watered and he keeps a torrent of water running down the outside walls of the house.

"I have an excellent range of view here and I have a gas mask and heavy overalls and my truck is gased up and pointed straight to the road. I could actually probably leave the house in about 30 seconds."

He said the power in the house has gone out and the air is filling with smoke.

Aside from the 11,000 residents ordered out, another 6,000 were told to be on evacuation alert, according to updated figures released by Jeanne Rucker, of the B.C. Forest Service.

It's unclear how long those people will be out of their homes, but Rucker displayed a glimmer of optimism Sunday afternoon in relating news that the fire situation was looking "substantially better."

The winds had died somewhat and the fire was being pushed toward Okanagan Lake.

"It's scary, you know," Wilf Carey said Sunday as he went in to register at the evacuee centre.

"You had to get out. We just did what we were told. We just picked up our belongings and got out."

Carey's house was among 6,500 homes deemed in danger.

Carey has lived in the West Kelowna subdivision for three years and said he grabbed some pictures and a few more personal belongings when he was ordered to get out.

A neighbour has told him his house is still standing, which he said is a relief.

His son Brian was on his way from Langley to visit his parents when he saw the smoke near his parents' home.

Amid his worry for his family, Brian Carey said he was boggled by the behaviour of some people observing the fire.

"The craziest thing I saw was a guy pulled over on the highway. His wife got out with her camera (to take pictures ) and the guy in front of me just about ran her over. I'm just pulling my teeth out."

Fred Smith sat in a lawn chair in the evacuee centre parking lot watching the fire rage Sunday.

"I went to bed and about three-quarters of an hour after that, my daughter came over and said 'You've got to get out. They're evacuating the place."'

He said he ran into the bedroom and told his startled wife they'd have to leave immediately.

The Smiths grabbed some family pictures, their wedding picture, their dogs and all their prescription medication.

They slept in their van overnight and aren't sure what they'll do if they're away from home for long because they don't have friends to stay with.

Hotel rooms throughout Kelowna and surrounding Okanagan cities quickly booked up Saturday night, leaving no vacancies.

But Barb Richardson, a volunteer at the centre, said most people have been quite calm and understanding of the situation.

So many people have donated food, pillows and clothing that the centre doesn't need anymore.

Richardson has been evacuated herself, but when asked about her house, she replied: "I don't want to know if it went up."

Heed said the government response to this fire compared to the Kelowna fire of 2003, where more than 200 homes were lost, is "like night and day."

"Of primary importance is our ability to jump on this right away and bring the resources in and bring the people in that can make a difference."

By Sunday, helicopters, air tankers and firefighters from Kelowna, Summerland, Penticton and the B.C. Forest Service were fighting the four-square-kilometre blaze raging behind the Glenrosa subdivision.

Fire crews were also working on two other fires nearby, each measuring about 1 square kilometre.

Temperatures were predicted to be high again Monday and Tuesday and there is no rain insight.

Dr. Paul Hasselback, of the Interior Health Authority, said air quality was starting to become a concern.

The blaze was little more than a wisp of smoke late Saturday afternoon, but it grew exponentially, whipped by gusting winds and incinerating trees like matches.

Despite steady water-bucketing Saturday from six helicopters and up to four air tankers, the fire jumped across Glenrosa Road, sparking grass fires and torching cedar hedges as residents doused their roofs with garden hoses. At least one house reportedly burned

It's also not clear what caused the blaze, though Assistant Fire Chief Lou Wilde hinted strongly Sunday it may have been human-caused.

"I'm quite certain lightning wasn't a factor," Wilde said. "It's brutal conditions to work in this heat."

Among the evacuated were residents of a care home, who were moved to another facility.

RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk said there were between 40 and 45 RCMP officers working on the fire to ward off looters, among other things.

"Our mandate is to secure evacuated areas and give some peace of mind to people who have been evacuated from those homes," Moskaluk said.

However, he said there has been no reports of looting.

Officers were also advising boaters on Okanagan Lake to stay out of the area. Too many of them were crowding near the shore to get a look at the fire Saturday, he added.

Power was out in certain areas of the evacuated subdivision, and also in Peachland and parts of Summerland.

Cellular service was also overwhelmed, and a Telus spokesman asked people in the area to only use their cell phones if necessary.

A second fire was burning about 10 kilometres north at the nearby Rose Valley Reservoir, where another 1,500 homes were under evacuation alert. A third fire, further north at Fintry, was also burning.

In 2003, lightning strikes triggered a fire that scorched 250 square kilometres, destroyed more than 200 homes and caused millions of dollars in property damage.

 
 
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