OLIVER, B.C. — Residents in southeastern British Columbia are regrouping from an immense and fast-spreading wildfire that has so far wiped out 30 homes and forced hundreds to flee with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Kerstin Klenheimer and her husband deserted their house when the 37-square-kilometre Rock Creek fire broke out Thursday evening. On Sunday she stood next to a charred piece of property on the side of a highway and stared into the distance at the fire burning near her house.
"It was like a tornado coming — a fire tornado coming up the valley,'' she said, recalling the moments before their hasty departure. "There was no time. You just have to run.''
As of Sunday, Klenheimer still had no idea whether her home was still standing.
"(My) worst fear is that everything is gone,'' she said. "We built the home 10 years ago — 10 years of effort just going up in smoke is very devastating.''
Premier Christy Clark visited a community centre packed with evacuees in nearby Midway on Sunday. She told reporters she wants to see harsher penalties for people who start forest fires.
"If you are found to have been throwing a cigarette butt out of your car, perhaps one of the penalties available should be that we should be able to take away the use of your car for a period of time.''
The blaze in Rock Creek began by a highway junction and is believed to be human-caused. Clark said if evidence shows an individual is responsible, that person will face consequences.
The premier predicted the cost of fighting fires this season could balloon to as much as $400 million. The province budgets for fires on a five-year average, working out to about $60 million a year.
"I don't wake up in the morning thinking about where we're going to find the money to fight the fires. I get up in the morning thinking, 'How am I going to make sure we put these fires out?''' she said.
"Because whatever we need to spend, we spend it to make sure we look after the people of this province.''
The aggressive blaze forced campers at the Kettle River Provincial Park to rush out on foot last week, leaving nearly everything behind, including vehicles and trailers.
Campers were escorted back in small groups on Sunday to pick up their belongings. The winding highway leading into the park was flanked by heaps of destroyed homes and scorched earth.
Two burned-out vehicles sat in the parking lot and the park itself was filled with blackened, charred trees.
But many campers, including Greg Ternan and his family, were amazed to find all of their belongings intact. Evacuees at the community centre cheered as he drove his vehicle out of the lot.
"I'm feeling pretty good, just want to go home now, have a shower,'' he said with a grin.
The biggest challenge to fighting the several aggressive blazes that have flared up across the region has been the strong and gusty winds, said Kevin Skrepnek of the B.C. Wildfire Service.
The wildfire service hadn't called for any significant wind on Sunday, said Alan Stanley of the Kootenay Boundary Regional District. But that situation could change quickly, he warned.
"You can't guarantee anything with a wildfire,'' he said. "It is bold, all-caps 'unpredictable' with several exclamation marks.''
Some 220 fires continue to burn across B.C., out of a total of more than 1,600 that have sparked since Apr. 1. More than 900 people remain under evacuation order across the province, including 240 in the Rock Creek area.
Some evacuation orders were recently downgraded to alerts, meaning the occupants of 88 homes and businesses were allowed to return.
Another two wildfires in the heart of B.C.'s wine country, near Oliver in the Okanagan Valley, continued to smoulder on Sunday, with scores of residents still forced from their homes.
Though residents affected by the three-square-kilometre Wilson Mountain fire were allowed home Saturday, about 110 people living near the 15-square kilometre Testalinden Creek fire remained under evacuation order.
The B.C. Wildfire Service reported that a stray drone had grounded fire aircraft at the Testalinden fire. This is at least the second instance so far this year where a drone has interfered with firefighting efforts.
Spud Torrao watched as flames engulfed the hillside directly next to his three-acre hobby farm on Sunday. Oliver Fire Department crews attacked the blaze with a hose as a massive water bomber doused the fire.
He said when the fire first broke out on Friday he loaded his dogs and cats into his truck and slept on his roof.
The wind was just hollering. I said, 'Oh boy, this is going to be bad.'"
But even as firefighters scrambled to contain the blaze just metres from his property, Torrao said he wasn't too worried.
"They're all here,'' he said, gesturing to crews. "As long as they're here, I know we're being well looked after.''