By Melanie Eksal
Special to OsoyoosToday
Camping at Oliver’s municipal airport may not have been the get-away many B.C. Wildfire Service crew members had hoped for this summer, but at least they’re among friends.
South Okanagan media outlets were this week given a private tour of the camp situated at the base of the 2,632-hectare Eagle Bluff fire between Okanagan Falls and Oliver.
“From the time you wake up, everybody is just smiling and waving, saying, ‘Good morning,’” said Natasha Lewis, the camp’s service branch director.
Ms. Lewis helps ensure there’s enough food and supplies for the crew, a difficult task as many people come and go.
She said morale in camp remains high.
“We celebrate our little successes, whether that’s getting a good line put in, or whether it’s just a day of the fire not moving, it’s really just all the small things that make the group come together to form a big happy group here at the fire,” she said.
Approximately 275 people live in the base camp now as the fire burns just 20 minutes away. The number of residents was as high as 350.
Ms. Lewis been living in camp for a week, with plans of staying one more. It’s a typical shift for many of the crew members who are shipped to Oliver from across the province, many of whom recognize one another from previous years.
Meals are eaten together in a large tented area with a TV and picnic benches, just a short distance away from where a crew of 10 prepare three daily meals and bagged lunches.
“It’s twenty-four seven; it’s been busy,” said Chris Fraser, the head chef and manager of the company that’s been contracted to serve the camp.
“And of course we’re out in the elements, that can be challenging as well. Especially in this heat and humidity.”
Mr. Fraser said the support from local communities has been “great,” with donations flooding into the camp.
“Pies, cookies, squares, people just wanting to volunteer their time,” he said. “It’s been great. Fantastic, actually.”
Eagle Bluff fire not out yet
Meanwhile, the fight to douse the Eagle Bluff blaze continues.
Rain throughout the week has, according to operations section chief Andre Chalabi, slowed down the fire growth and stifled a lot of the smoke, but that doesn’t mean the fight is over.
“When a fire runs through the surface, it also gets embedded into the lower layers of the ground, and it will continue burning,” he explained.
Crew members are working more than 12 hours a day mopping up areas hit by the flames, digging beneath the ground in search of hotspots and dousing them.
Planned ignitions have been a big part of fighting the fire, said Mr. Chalabi, and can be set by air or on the ground.
It “stops the fire on our terms,” he said. “We create them … and place them in areas we know we have a better chance of stopping a fire. We utilize topography.”
Topography, though, has been a challenge for many of the crew members, who often times have to hike steep terrain to run hoses and set up large bladders – which can hold up to nearly 5,700 litres of water.
When the blaze sparked on Aug. 4, more than 300 firefighters – many coming from across the province – were rushed to Oliver.
Now, since the evacuation alerts have been rescinded, some crew members have been sent home, but 147 are still working throughout the day and 47 through the night.
If dryer weather hits, smoke could once again be in the forecast, but fire information officer Shannon Street said part of the haze could be from planned ignitions.
An area restriction order for Crown land has also been implemented by BC Wildfire Service, which will remain in place until noon on Aug. 30, or until otherwise noted.
The order restricts people from remaining in the Eagle Bluff vicinity unless with proper written authorization or unless travelling to or from their principal residence.
Melanie Eksal is a reporter with The Penticton Herald. OsoyoosToday and The Herald share an informal editorial use agreement.