Kelowna Fire Chief Travis Whiting’s voice cracked ever so slightly as he was giving the news, that the Walroy Lake wildfire is now classified as being held, all evacuated Kelowna residents will be returning home — hopefully by the end of the day.
Good news for Lake Country as well as the Clarke Creek wildfire is no longer out of control and is classified as being held.
Those listening to the Thursday, Aug. 24 briefing could hear the relief, and excitement, in Whiting’s voice after the kind of week that makes heroes out of firefighters, emergency responders and the leaders that steer the ship of complex firefighting operations.
“This is really exciting news. I can tell you at the fire hall the mood is very, very high and very, very positive this morning,” Whiting said. “It’s been our goal for the last seven days to get all our residents home safely, and we couldn’t be more excited to see this happen today…That’s a big deal.”
There was a triumphant air to Thursday’s presser, though it was tempered by reminders that there is still firefighting to be done, and not all neighbourhoods are in the clear. And while the weather has cooperated of late, that can change quickly.
Asked how it feels to be able to offer good news to evacuated Kelowna residents, Whiting said “it’s very real.”
“We wear our hearts on our sleeves, I think you’ve seen that at this table over the last week, and it’s why we do what we do and we’re impassioned about it, and the fact that we’re returning people home today is very real for me and it’s very real for the crews.”
Whiting encouraged residents to visit cordemergency.ca for up-to-date information as evacuation orders continue to be rescinded.
West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund said support from the communities has been felt by fire and emergency crews, and it has an invigorating effect.
“It really is the fuel that keeps us all going. Being able to read your comments and the cards that you’ve dropped off and see the signs outside the fire hall is what fuels my men and women, as well as all of the men and women who are involved, so I want to thank you for that,” he said.
“There are so many people who are working on this,” Brolund continued, adding it’s not just emergency services who are working tirelessly anymore; now that parts of the area have entered the recovery stage, there are a lot more people whose efforts must be appreciated.
“The recovery component of this incident is growing by the moment. But, we will get the job done on the ground.”
Whiting took a moment to express his appreciation for BC Wildfire Service as well as “the many structural departments that attended and our own crews from Kelowna Fire Department that have spent the last seven days dug in deep.
Whiting noted that those returning home won’t be returning to the same neighbourhood they left, as the fire has burned very close to many homes, scorching backyards. Crews will be conducting danger tree assessments and the public is asked to stay away from areas where crews are doing this work, for their safety.
While “thousands” of homes have been saved, not everyone has a home to return to, and West Kelowna Mayor Gord Milsom offered his condolences to those people.
“I had an opportunity to tour some of our neighbourhoods with our fire chief yesterday and it was really heart-wrenching to see some of the destruction,” he said. “I just wanted to express on behalf of myself and our city council our deepest sympathies for all those who have lost their homes, and just want to let you know that you’re not alone, we’re here to help you now and in the months and years to come.”