KELOWNA, B.C. – Though nearby wildfires are still wreaking havoc on the area, boaters on British Columbia’s Okanagan Lake continue to enjoy the best of a B.C. summer – and that’s causing problems for firefighters working in the area.
Glen Burgess of the BC Wildfire Service said the boaters are impeding the response of firefighters’ support aircraft, which use the lake as a bucketing tool and water source.
Burgess said the wildfire had spread down to the shoreline but was not keeping boaters away from well-known recreational hot spots, and the RCMP was eventually called in to help keep the public away.
“Boaters are still trying to use them despite the fire being literally right there, and it began to interfere with our bucketing operations,” Burgess said during a briefing Saturday.
Fire Information Officer Noelle Kekula said in an interview Sunday that boaters were getting too close to the helicopters and skimmers, amphibious tanker planes that can hold more than 3,000 litres of water or fire-retardant chemicals, and need room to take off once they fill up.
“Think of (the lake) like an airstrip: the skimmers need to come in and land, and then they need enough room to take off again,” she said, adding that both the helicopters and skimmers become significantly more heavy when full of water.
The helicopters lower a 950-litre bucket into the water to fill up, said Kekula, and can drop the water more precisely than the “shotgun” approach the skimmers take when emptying above a blaze.
Kekula said she’s especially frustrated by the repeated warnings to boaters whose actions are putting firefighters and their communities in danger and creating “incredible safety issues.”
She said she did not know the motivation behind the boaters getting dangerously close to the aircraft, but said she would not be surprised if they were thrill-seekers trying to ride the large wakes created by the skimmers.
“It’s the million-dollar question as to why people are interfering with our operations,” said Kekula.
Kekula hopes the warnings to the public, along with RCMP involvement, will help boaters manage themselves properly.
The wildfire in Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park has grown to nearly 14 square kilometres and is classified as out of control by the BC Wildfire Service.