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Rock Creek wildfire destroys 30 homes

Aug. 17, 2015, 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.

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.

"Whatever we need to spend, we spend it to make sure we look after the people of this province,'' she said.

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.

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.

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.

Dale Winn was on her way home from a fishing trip when her 19-year-old son Dylan called her from their house in Zamora on Thursday night.

He told her there was a wildfire ripping toward them and texted her photos of the flames. As soon as she saw the images, she told him to grab his 13-year-old brother and get out immediately.

She still hasn't come home. After meeting her sons at an evacuation centre in Kelowna, Winn's house was engulfed in the Rock Creek blaze. Days later, she's still reeling from the news.

"I'm in shock,'' she said by phone from a family member's home in Penticton on Sunday. "It is what it is. It's an amazing community, so we're not going to move.''

Winn said she doesn't have insurance and doesn't know yet what her family will do next. But she remained optimistic that she would rebuild, and expressed her deep gratitude to the community.

"We're not the only ones. There are so many people who lost their homes,'' she said. "I'm so grateful my kids are OK. They're just things, right? They can be replaced.''

August 17, 2015
By The Canadian Press

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