The Eagle Bluff wildfire burning north of Oliver, B.C., has more than tripled in size since Monday, prompting officials to expand an evacuation alert for the area.
That alert now includes the Osoyoos Indian Band reserve and the provincially operated Okanagan Correctional Centre (OCC), which has already moved some inmates as a precaution.
On Tuesday night, the regional district announced it was putting another 41 properties on evacuation alert. The addresses put on notice are in the McKinney Creek area.
The fire is now estimated at about 900 hectares in size, with growth prompted by extremely hot and dry conditions, according to the BC Wildfire Service.
Dean Purdy, chair of the Corrections and Sheriff Services component of the BC Government and Service Employees Union, told Global News that about 100 of the highest risk inmates were moved from the facility to Kamloops, the Lower Mainland and other maximum security jails on Tuesday evening.
“They chose them in case they do have to go on full evacuation, they’ll be dealing with a little bit lower security-type inmates,” he said.
“You know, we’re hoping, fingers crossed that they won’t have to evacuate the rest of the jail because really, our officers that work in the maximum security Okanagan jail are already taxed because of staff shortages.
The Ministry of Public Safety said it was prepared to evacuate the facility but refused to confirm or deny the movement of any inmates, citing “security reasons.”
“Safety of both inmates and staff is our top priority,” said a ministry spokesperson in an email.
“The OCC management team has planned for the eventuality that they may have to evacuate and Sheriff transportation has been arranged for inmates. BC Corrections has the capacity to accommodate transfers as necessary. Families will be notified once transfers are complete,” added the spokesperson.
The Okanagan Correctional Centre currently houses about 200 inmates, according to the ministry.
People covered by the evacuation alert are advised to keep a bag of essential items packed and ready to go, and to prepare to move any pets and livestock to a safe place if necessary.
Osyoos Indian Band chief Clarence Louie said he’s optimistic fire crews will contain the wildfire, and he doesn’t anticipate the alert being upgraded to an evacuation order.
“We just go by whatever the forest service tells us, and they tell our people if we’re on evacuation alerts, and that’s happened in the last couple of days. There’s a lot of smoke and we can’t tell if the fire is going north, south east or west and nothing much has changed in the last couple of days, but a handful of our people are on evacuation alerts,” he said.
“Listen to the forest service, those guys are the experts. They know what the fire’s doing and they have the best guess of what direction it’s going in.”
Temperatures in the region have trended in the mid 30s, with a high recorded Tuesday of 38 C.
“This area, between Vernon south to the border, has seen very little , very dry conditions. Extreme fire behaviour is what we are seeing at this time,” said BC Wildfire Service deputy incident commander Scott Rennick.
Crews have struggled to contain the fire, which is burning in extremely steep, rocky cliff-like terrain.
The area of most concern is the fire’s west flank, which is closest to nearby communities and which is where firefighters are focusing their efforts.
The BC Wildfire Service said it has 80 personnel on site on Wednesday, along with eight helicopters and planes that will be performing water and retardant drops.
Heavy equipment is also being deployed to tackle parts of the fire that have spread downward and out of the cliff areas.
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