Sun, Aug 24, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Thousands flee forest flames in Canada

EMERGENCY OPERATION Around 30,000 residents were evacuated from their homes as massive fires sparked by lightning moved toward houses

REUTERS , KELOWNA, BRITISH COLUMBIA

A firefighter battles a flare up of the Okanagan Mountain park fire near the area where 15 homes were burnt down by the Okanagan Mountain park in Kelowna, British Columbia, in Canada on Friday.

PHOTO: AP

Emergency officials ordered an additional 20,000 people to evacuate their homes in Kelowna, British Columbia, on Friday as a wildfire moved closer to the prosperous vacation city.

The additional evacuation meant that 30,000 people, or nearly one-third of Kelowna's population, had been ordered from their homes, said Bruce Smith, a local emergency operations official.

Massive flames could be seen near the western Canadian city, as the 17,000-hectare fire raged, casting an eerie orange glow into the sky.

"I've lived here all my life, and I can't believe this," said Debbie Curylo, 44, who was watching the fires from a distance, saying they had spread to an area where her two sisters live.

"It's all up to God now."

Winds picked up late in the day, pushing the fire past containment lines that crews had struggled to build for several days. A similar situation happened on Thursday evening, prompting the first evacuations.

A thick pall of smoke had hung over the city of 96,000 throughout Friday, shrouding the mountains. Blackened pine needles and bits of ash floated down like gray snow flurries.

No deaths or injuries were reported, but 15 homes were damaged or destroyed by the flames. Witnesses told local media that they had seen additional homes being destroyed by the flames.

Many of those who fled were told they had only minutes to leave by police who went from door to door as danger mounted.

The fire outside Kelowna, in the Okanagan region about 300km east of Vancouver, began on Aug. 16 with a lightning strike in the mountains.

The region is home to Western Canada's wine industry, and the fire has forced the closure of at least one winery.

Even before the evacuations in Kelowna, as many as 2,000 people in the southern interior of Canada's westernmost province were forced from their homes by several large forest fires.

The mountainous area has had scant rainfall this summer, creating one of the most devastating fire seasons in decades.

After viewing the blaze by air, British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell said it "seemed endless."

Since April 1, more than 1,600 sq2 of forest have burned in British Columbia, which has declared a state of emergency. More than 800 fires were burning across the province.

Residents have been warned to stay out of forests and off wilderness roads and campsites in the southern half of the province, which is Canada's third largest and roughly the size of France and Germany combined.

Dry conditions have forced most southern timber companies to withdraw logging crews, and workers will not be able to return until there is significant rain -- a factor that has driven lumber prices up on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

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