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Properties destroyed as latest B.C. wildfire flares, forcing urgent evacuations

Owen Rose said his "worst fears were realized" as he watched an out-of-control wildfire creep over a ridge and race toward Gun Lake in southern British Columbia, destroying about a dozen properties in its path.
The Downton Lake wildfire near Gold Bridge B.C., burns toward the north shore of Gun Lake in this Tuesday, August 1, 2023 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Owen Rose *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Owen Rose said his "worst fears were realized" as he watched an out-of-control wildfire creep over a ridge and race toward Gun Lake in southern British Columbia, destroying about a dozen properties in its path. 

"It was shocking to see how fast it was coming down and then it hit a little cabin, or a boathouse, and it hit another little structure and the trees were candling around it before the smoke became really intense," he said in an interview Tuesday. 

Flames from the lightning-caused Downton Lake wildfire, 110 kilometres northwest of the Resort Community of Whistler, have made steady progress through steep, wooded terrain at the western end of Gun Lake since the blaze was sparked on July 13. The fire suddenly flared on Monday. 

While Rose said he initially felt safe from his vantage point on the eastern side of the lake, he and his partner decided to get out Tuesday, just as an evacuation order covering the more than 200 properties around the lake was issued. 

The order was quickly upgraded to critical, urging the seasonal and permanent residents to leave for Lillooet or Whistler.

Evacuation alerts were also extended to areas north of Gun Lake, including Tyaughton Lake and the Tyax Resort, as the nearly 18-square-kilometre fire almost quadrupled in size since Monday.

Rose said his father's cabin has been in his family since 1945 and it is where he spent his childhood summers.

"There was always the fear of lightning (and) there was always a fear of a campfire setting off a forest fire and destroying the incredible natural beauty around that lake, so that's always been a fear in the back of our heads and now it's actually happened," he said.

He said the fire has burned family traditions and heritage to the ground. 

"So, this is the first time in my 52 years that I've ever actually seen it. And it ended up close. So, it has this sort of sense of 'Lord of the Rings' of devastation," Rose said of watching the fire destroy the homes on the opposite side of the lake. 

Rose's father, 81-year-old John Rose, said in a previous interview that he intended to stay as long as possible to keep the sprinklers running on the roof of their log house and on the heritage cabins on the neighbouring property built by his parents in the 1940s.

"This isn't heroic," said John Rose, a retired BC Parks Service ranger. "I just don't think anyone else could handle this set up."

Owen Rose said his father has since reassessed the situation and left the property on Wednesday. He said their cabin was still standing and he hopes it stays that way.

"It's three generations and memories that are there. That would be the greatest loss. It's a massive psychological loss if they were to go," he said.

Wildfire Service director of operations Cliff Chapman told a news conference Wednesday that hot and dry conditions are likely to persist and strong winds will continue to pose a challenge on the fire lines.

"The conditions at Gun Lake specifically are quite challenging with the steep terrain, so we are utilizing our aviation assets. We have ground resources on that fire including structure protection, but also fire suppression crews," he said. 

He couldn't confirm the number of homes lost to the fire. 

"The plan will be to continue to try to protect the structures around Gun Lake and ideally try to steer that fire away from the structures and communities while the conditions persist and make it very challenging for us to actually suppress the fire."

The Gun Lake fire is among about 360 active wildfires across B.C., including 14 that the B.C. Wildfire Service says were sparked since Tuesday.

The Thompson-Nicola Regional District issued an evacuation alert late Wednesday for approximately 75 properties near Adams Lake in Rivers and the Peaks areas due to the Lower East Adams Lake wildfire. The Columbia Shuswap Regional District also issued an evacuation alert for the Northern Reach of Tsutswecw Provincial Park because of the same fire. 

The destroyed homes, evacuation orders and alerts came as most residents of the southern Okanagan town of Osoyoos were returning to their homes after a wildfire raced north from Washington state on Saturday, burning to within metres of some properties before a wind shift spared the community.

The flare up of the Downton Lake blaze happened just as the young Ontario firefighter who died last week in northeastern B.C., was identified as 25-year-old Zak Muise.

Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma told the news conference that about 530 people at more than 500 properties are under evacuation order across B.C., and more than 9,500 people at 4,100 properties are under evacuation alert. 

As of Wednesday, Ma said 23 of the province's 34 water basins are in drought Level 4 or 5, meaning harm to ecosystems and communities is likely and efforts should be made to conserve water and protect critical environmental flows.

"It's important that our extreme drought situation is not overshadowed by the ongoing wildfire situation," Ma said. 

"That's why it's incredibly important that everyone, including businesses, follow all local water restrictions," she said. "Every drop counts."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 2, 2023.

Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press