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‘You gotta get out’: Search and rescue helps with Okanagan wildfire evacuations

‘We had five teams on the go and basically racing ahead of the fire’
Central Okanagan Search and Rescue helped evacuate thousands of Central Okanagan residents from the Grouse Complex wildfires. (COSAR/Facebook)

A lot of the leg work in evacuating thousands of people from the Grouse Complex wildfires was done by Central Okanagan Search and Rescue (COSAR).

Working under the RCMP, crews began planning the morning of Aug. 17. They got the call to go at 4 p.m.

“We had five teams on the go and basically racing ahead of the fire,” said Ed Henczel, COSAR team member. “One of the teams got cut off on Westside and had to return through Vernon. It was nip and tuck.”

COSAR helped through the night helping to evacuate property owners as the McDougall Creek wildfire raged in West Kelowna and rural communities of the Regional District Central Okanagan (RCDO).

“You feel for the people too, we’re banging on doors saying you gotta get out,” Henczel added.

He said COSAR members were fortunate as many property owners had already evacuated.

“Give credit to people in West Kelowna they were up on the news, but it was a surprise to some people how quickly that fire spread. It did catch some people off guard.”

Henczel said they did come across some residents who did not want to leave their homes. In those cases, calls were made to the RCMP.

There were also those who needed help getting out.

“Between the police and neighbours (we) managed to get everybody out. That was pretty awesome how people came together because people didn’t even know where to go at that point.”

On Friday, Aug. 25, COSAR members moved to Kelowna and Lake Country to help with evacuations from the Walroy Lake and Clarke Creek fires.

COSAR and 24 members in the field and several more stationed at base operations. All of them worked long hours over the entire evacuation period and then headed to work when their shifts were over.

Henczel added their boat team had also been kept busy, along Vernon Search and Rescue, keeping people away from firefighting aircraft drawing water from Okanagan Lake.

“For a few days there it was kind of crazy with people wanting to get close to the action not realizing they’re impeding (firefighters).”

With slowed wildfire activity over the past few days, and most evacuees returning home, COSAR is currently on standby.

“We check in every day with the Emergency Operations Centre to see if our services are needed,” Henczel said.

READ MORE: ‘Pulling together in terrifying times’: Trudeau visits wildfire impacted Okanagan

READ MORE: More than 130 properties lost to Bush Creek East wildfire in Columbia Shuswap


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Gary Barnes

About the Author: Gary Barnes

Journalist and broadcaster for three decades.
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