Boat owners called into action during extreme wildfires in Kelowna but later were told to stay off the lake

Kelowna Fires

Marine Industry News UK reported over this past weekend that boat owners in Canada were prompted into action after extreme wildfires engulfed the city of Kelowna and its surrounding land, but later the boaters were facing the wrath of emergency services.

Aug 23, 2023

Marine Industry News UK reported over this past weekend that boat owners in Canada were prompted into action after extreme wildfires engulfed the city of Kelowna and its surrounding land, but later the boaters were facing the wrath of emergency services.

The story described that fires have been raging throughout British Columbia bringing mass evacuations and a state of emergency had been declared around Kelowna, a city which spans both sides of the Okanagan Lake, with a population of almost 150,000.

A short video of the ongoing wildfires

Reports on social media said as the fires spread to the shoreline homes, pleas were made for boats to rescue people trapped in Okanagan Lake after fleeing the shore from Trader’s Cove, close to Kelowna (18 August 2023). Residents said roads in the area were rendered impassable due to the fires, according to Newsweek.

“The people that were left there were only left with the water as an exit route,” Chris Neumann, a coordinator for British Columbia emergency livestock management, told Kelowna Now, given that the fire had made the road impassable.

Ryan Blonar, a former structural firefighter and owner of Okanagan Luxury Boat Club & Valet told Info News that he’d “never seen anything like this.”

“As one of the largest rental and boat clubs, we’re known to liaise with RCMP water division and help out in different situations,” he said. “We heard there were people in need of evacuation in Traders Cove.”

Blonar and his team were on the scene trying to help spot people in the water from 9pm to almost midnight. He said roughly ten swimmers were rescued by RCMP while wildfire ground crews were also trying to get out of the burning area.

Blonar said he “didn’t have the words” to describe what he saw.

“It was something I’ve never seen before, everything in flames, nothing left,” he said. “I feel for everyone affected by this, it looked like armageddon. It’s tragic seeing this in our own backyard.”

But later, police advised people to stay off the lake as aerial firefighters were scooping up water from the lake to help dampen the wildfires (water bombing).

Boaters urged to ‘stay off the lake’

“The Kelowna RCMP is directing citizens to stay off Okanagan Lake and out of the way of aircraft fighting the fires. There have been several boats on the lake attempting to get to areas within the evacuation zones. These individuals are putting themselves and emergency personnel at risk. Please stay off the lake and out of the evacuation areas,” says Ryan Watters, communications advisor for the Kelowna RCMP.

“Don’t go boating, kayaking, canoeing or stand up paddleboarding on Okanagan Lake during this state of emergency. If you want to go to the beach and swim in any area that’s not under evacuation order, you’re welcome to. However, you might not want to in this thick smoke. If you do swim, make sure to stay close to shore and definitely within any area marked by buoys.

“Boaters or anyone else on the lake in an evacuation zone can be fined.”

In 2018, some boaters on the same lake were accused of hampering fire fighters. Then fire information officer Noelle Kekula told CTV News that boaters were getting too close to the helicopters and skimmers, amphibious tanker planes that can hold more than 3,000 litres of water or fire-retardant chemicals, and need room to take off once they fill up.

“Think of (the lake) like an airstrip: the skimmers need to come in and land, and then they need enough room to take off again,” she said, explaining that both the helicopters and skimmers become significantly more heavy when full of water. The helicopters lower a 950-litre bucket into the water to fill up. She said she was especially frustrated by the repeated warnings to boaters whose actions were putting firefighters and their communities in danger and creating “incredible safety issues.”

Main image courtesy of BC Wildfire Service, McDougall Creek Fire.

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