Peachland Fire: Hundreds Return Home

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Wildfire burns out of control along highway 97C near Peachland, B.C. on Sunday Sept. 9, 2012. (Jeff Bassett, CP)
Wildfire burns out of control along highway 97C near Peachland, B.C. on Sunday Sept. 9, 2012. (Jeff Bassett, CP)

PEACHLAND, B.C. - The flames were a stone's throw away from Maggie Dawson's log home, perched on the Okanagan hillside, when she decided it was time to leave.

Less than 10 minutes later, she and her dog Roy were in the garage preparing to drive away when she heard the loud buzz of a tanker overhead. She stepped outside to have a look.

"You couldn't see it (the plane) because of all the smoke, and then all of the sudden I saw this black stuff coming down," Dawson, 33, recalled Tuesday, two days after the fire forced her to flee.

"As I stepped in the garage, this red lands on our driveway. It was like a huge pile of red stuff landed on our driveway. I've never seen it before."

Dawson's house, garage, driveway and even the firewood were left covered in an even coating of red fire retardant, which was dropped throughout the area by the tankers attempting to stop the spread of a fire that was being pushed along by high winds.

Past a line of trees across the street from Dawson's house is the area worst hit by the fire, which broke out Sunday afternoon on the outskirts of the small community of Peachland, located about 380 kilometres northeast of Vancouver.

It was in that section of Peachland, one of the last remaining areas still under an evacuation order Tuesday, that three homes and an abandoned house were destroyed.

The fire grew to two square kilometres and forced the evacuation of 1,500 people.

That number shrank to 258 by Tuesday morning, as cool temperatures and rain slowed the fire, which was considered 75 per cent contained.

Dawson and her husband Adrian were allowed to return Monday evening. Earlier in the day, a neighbour who snuck into the evacuation zone told them their house was OK, but covered in red fire retardant and white foam.

Her husband was spending the day Tuesday using a pressure washer to clean off the fire retardant.

Dawson noted the pressure washer was also taking off the stain from their newly finished deck, but then she interrupted herself.

"But who cares, it doesn't matter," she said. "None of it matters. It's still here. It's still standing."

Fire investigators were still attempting to determine the cause of the fire, which began next to a small park on the side of the highway on the outskirts of Peachland.

On Tuesday, evidence markers dotted the small, blackened ditch where the fire was believed to have started, as fire investigators knelt down close to examine the burnt grass and twigs on the ground.

From there, the flames quickly moved through the adjacent forest, shifting with the winds and twisting around roads and damp green lawns that offered at least some protection from the hot embers floating in the air.

Ted Ellis scrambled up a ladder to put a garden sprinkler on his roof before leaving — a last-ditch attempt to add a little more protection to his home, which he has already spent several years attempting to fireproof.

Ellis, 49, learned just how easily flames can spread the hard way. He works at the Gorman Bros. mill in West Kelowna, which, in 2009, was threatened by a fire that forced thousands from their homes.

Ellis and other workers were called in to protect the mill. He spent the night using heavy equipment to remove logs and other material away from the fire.

The mill survived, but the family who owns the facility lost two houses, which Ellis saw burn up in a matter of minutes.

"When I got out of that, one of the first things I did was change the roof on my house," said Ellis, who was allowed to return home Tuesday morning.

Ellis covered his roof with shingles that are more resistant to fire. He cut down several pine beetle-infested trees on his property. He put a line of rocks at the front of his yard to serve as a buffer from flames.

Kim and Mike Kleineberg were certain the fire was heading directly for their house, sitting on a single-home lot along a quiet street near vineyards, acreages and ranches.

"When it first started, it was coming this way, and then the wind changed direction — thank you, Lord — and then it changed to the south," said Kim Kleineberg, a high school teacher.

"It was the wind. Totally out of our hands."

The Kleinebergs were forced to stay away from their home until Tuesday morning after spending two nights in a hotel with their two boys, aged 12 and 14.

They were relieved to return to a house that was as they left it, with two cats in the yard and no fire retardant on their property.

Her 14-year-old son celebrated his birthday in a hotel room on Monday.

"Our words for him were, 'You're not going to forget this birthday any time soon,'" said Kim Kleineberg.

"We all found it very stressful. We enjoy our home. You're out of your comfort zone."

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