Eagle Bluff fire: Fire now mapped at 1,200 hectares

UPDATE 8:08 a.m., Aug. 8

As the heat of the day starts to rise firefighters battling the Eagle Bluff wildfire have discovered the blaze has grown considerably overnight.

B.C. Wildfire Services now indicates the blaze has grown to 1,200 hectares in size.

The Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen also widened the evacuation alert zone for the Eagle Bluff wildfire to 41 additional properties in the McKinney Creek area.

Fire crews say the terrain has made fighting the blaze challenging. Extremely hot dry and windy conditions haven't helped the situation.

Environment Canada's special weather statement for the Okanagan and the South Thompson remains in effect and temperatures are expected to rise into the mid-30s for the second straight day today. The special air quality statement also remains in effect for the South Okanagan, including Penticton, Summerland, Naramata, Keremeos, Oliver and Osoyoos, will be impacted by wildfire smoke over the next 24 to 48 hours.

UDPATE 8:15 p.m.

The Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen has widened the evacuation alert zone for the Eagle Bluff wildfire to 41 additional properties in the McKinney Creek area.

The RDOS says the decision was made in conjunction with the Osoyoos Indian Band and B.C. Wildfire Service “due to potential changes in weather conditions.”

A full list of impacted properties can be found here

The RDOS is asking motorists travelling through the fire zone to avoid stopping on Highway 97 to take photos of the scene. 

An evening update from the B.C. Wildfire Service including a new size estimate is still expected.

UPDATE 5:30 p.m.

The B.C. Wildfire Service says planned ignitions today at the Eagle Bluff wildfire at Gallagher Lake were “extremely successful,” although it's expected the blaze will continue to grow in the coming days.

Fire information officer Nicole Bonnet said the fire is still mapped at 900 hectares, although that number will likely grow at the end of the day.

“The ignition was extremely successful and crews remain on site in extremely warm, dry conditions,” she said. “Putting in a lot of good, hard, extremely sweaty work.”

She said the expected growth of the fire in the next couple days “might not necessarily be a bad thing.”

“In some of the areas it will bring the fire into terrain that is more operable and safer for our ground crews and heavy equipment,” she said, adding it would also open up flight lines for the numerous aircraft attacking the fire. 

Evacuation alerts remain in place for more than 200 properties in Gallagher Lake and north of Oliver on Osoyoos Indian Band land, including Jackson Triggs and the Okanagan Correctional Centre.

UPDATE 1:10 p.m.

A 900-hectare blaze continues to burn near Okanagan Correctional Centre, which is on evacuation alert and which has sheriffs ready to evacuate the inmates if need be. 

"The safety of both inmates and staff is our top priority. The OCC management team has planned for the eventuality that they may have to evacuate. Sheriff transportation has been arranged for inmates," said Caroline McAndrews, communications director. 

She said no further details could be given due to a policy of not sharing "details of our business continuity plans and transfers."

The Eagle Bluff fire currently has 80 personnel battling it, including helicopters, air tankers and heavy equipment as needed. Over 200 properties are on evacuation alert, and calculated burns are underway to keep structures safe. 

"A lot of the fire right now is in kind of inoperable ground, it's in steep areas where we can't safely put crews. So as it grows, it actually puts in areas that are safer for crews," said fire information officer Shannon Street. "So some growth is not necessarily a bad thing."

B.C. Wildfire crews are letting some areas burn strategically. 

"The fire is backing its way down the hill," said Andre Chalabi, operations section chief. "We're just letting the fire come down the hill, and as the fire gets close to that control line, we go out and do some hand ignition, to bring the fire under control on our own terms." 

Street said they expect 20 firefighters to remain on the blaze overnight. 

UPDATE 8:44 a.m.

The Okanagan Correctional Centre falls within the boundaries of the latest evacuation alert issued due to the Eagle Bluffs wildfire.

Media spokesperson Alicia Bertrand tells Castanet, "we have planning in place for events such as this, for floods and fires. We've been preparing since the weekend and making got plans in place."

The correctional centre is holding a briefing right now.

We'll have more information as soon as it becomes available.  

UPDATE 7:54 a.m., Aug. 7

The evacuation alert has been expanded by the Osoyoos Indian Band to include the Senkulmen Business Park in Oliver, B.C.

The Eagle Bluff fire has also been upgraded significantly in size overnight. The wildfire is now listed at 900 hectares. The B.C. Wildfire Service says the jump is largely due to better mapping yesterday evening, but the fire did see some growth overnight due to the topography of the area.

Fire crews plan on using small-scale hand ignition operations for today on the southern edge of Gallagher Lake to remove combustible fuels between the community and the fire perimeter. Increased smoke will be visible from nearby communities as a result.

UPDATE: 10 p.m.

An hour after the B.C. Wildfire Service updated the size of the Eagle Bluff wildfire Tuesday night, the number has jumped again.

As of 10 p.m., the large wildfire is now estimated to be 600 hectares, after it "experienced significant growth as a result of extreme conditions and due to the terrain that it is burning in."

BCWS crews are fighting the fire through the night, monitoring any growth. 

"With current weather and cooler temperatures, the advancing fire perimeter has slowed and is beginning to back on itself," the BCWS posted to Facebook Tuesday night. 

"If the fire begins to advance down slope toward the communities along the south end of Gallagher Lake, the personnel on site will begin controlled burn operations to remove the combustible fuels between the community and the fire perimeter."

Over 200 properties in the area remain on evacuation alert.

UPDATE: 8:20 p.m.

The Eagle Bluff wildfire is now estimated at approximately 480 hectares in size.

The B.C. Wildfire Service tweeted shortly after 8 p.m. that the growth is attributed to extreme conditions on site and the steep terrain the wildfire is burning in.

Topography in the area is steep and rocky, making some areas within the fire unsafe for crews and heavy equipment, the wildfire service says.

"The fire is anticipated to continue to grow as the fire moves upslope away from communities. Growth will bring the fire into more workable and safe terrain for resources on site," the BCWS added.

UPDATE 3:40 p.m.

Locals are calling it the Gallagher Lake airshow.

The B.C. Wildfire Service is hitting the Eagle Bluff wildfire hard from the sky.

Eight helicopters, air tankers and skimmers have been swarming the 280-hectare wildfire between OK Falls and Oliver.

Firefighters were challenged Tuesday (Aug. 6) by steep terrain and sweltering heat, while just over 200 properties remain under an evacuation alert.

The fire broke out Sunday night near the FortisBC substation and spread quickly. Residents of the nearby mobile home parks and Gallagher Lake Resort spent the night watching the glow and packing their bags.

“Guests were very uneasy, there was lots of anxiety,” says Gallagher Lake Resort property manager Jamie Cox, explaining they alerted all 550 guests of the situation that night.

On Tuesday, the fire appeared to be burning up and away from the community, leading residents and guests of the park to feel much more at ease. 

Speed limits on Highway 97 have been lowered to 50 km/hr through the fire zone, as aircraft have started to draw crowds of onlookers. 

Area businesses want to get the word out, that despite the evacuation alerts, they are still open for business. Smoke in the area Tuesday was negligible and Cox says cancellations have been minimal. 

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful day. The resort is, they are literally enjoying this airshow,” Cox says, impressed with how hard fire crews are hitting the fire. 

Eighty firefighters are on site and will be staying assigned to the blaze 24 hours a day.

UPDATE 10:55 a.m.

The B.C. Wildfire Service says the Eagle Bluff Wildfire near Gallagher Lake has grown to 280 hectares, although there was “minimal” growth overnight.

The size update is largely due to more accurate mapping, says fire information officer Nicole Bonnet, who explained smoke Monday hampered aerial surveillance efforts. 

“We had a little bit of a cooler overnight… there was minimal growth, but we had the 20 personnel on site working overnight,” she said. 

“We are expecting another pretty hot day out there today, so fire activity will likely increase when we reach that hottest part of the day. That’s to be expected.”

Eighty firefighters will be on site today (Aug. 6), supported by helicopters and air tankers.

The blaze has resulted in a special air quality statement for the South Okanagan. Environment Canada says wildfire smoke can be expected in Penticton, Summerland, Naramata, Keremeos, Oliver and Osoyoos.

“People with pre-existing health conditions, the elderly, pregnant women and infants, children, and sensitive individuals are more likely to experience health effects from smoke exposure,” Environment Canada said.

Highway 97 has been reduced to 50 km/hr through the wildfire zone for worker safety.

“The helicopters are bucketing out of the river and crossing over the highway, it’s obviously become a point of curiosity for most people,” Bonnet said, asking motorists to pay attention to the road when travelling through the area.

All the businesses and wineries in the area, despite the current evacuation alerts, remain open for business.

ORIGINAL 6:30 a.m.

The wildfire burning north of Oliver at Eagle Bluff continues to burn this morning (Aug. 6) and was last mapped at 225 hectares in size on Monday.

Fire information officer Hannah Swift said Sunday the fire is burning in dried out sage and grass. An update is expected later this morning.

"It hasn't seen much rain, and there's been quite long drying periods. That fuel is quite ready to ignite," said Swift, noting the area currently has the highest fire danger rating in the province.

Six helicopters and 100 personnel were fighting the fire on Monday, as additional crews came in from across the province.

"The crews are working in quite steep and rocky terrain and we are expecting highs of around 35 C," Swift said, adding the suspected cause of the Eagle Bluff fire is human activity, although it's under investigation.

An evacuation alert remains in place for residents of Gallagher Lake.

Southwest of Oliver, the four-kilometre-square Richter Mountain fire is being held with a helicopter and around 30 personnel. It's not expected to grow under current conditions.

"It's mostly just smoldering ground at this time. It's not producing a lot of smoke at this time," Swift said.

There have been 596 wildfires in B.C. so far this season, which started on April 1, with 29 currently active. This time last year, there had been 1,468 fires across the province, according to the fire service.

Wildfires have burned just over 144 square kilometres so far this year, compared to 970 as of August 5, 2018.

Humans have caused 57 per cent of this year's fires so far, and lightning has caused the remainder.

— Castanet, with files from Canadian Press

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