by Dave Preston
Residents of the Desert Pines neighborhood returned to their homes Wednesday evening after being evacuated for 72 hours.
Apprehensive and excited, the residents lined up their vehicles in single file on Trepanier Road, waiting to be allowed back in. Word went out Wednesday afternoon that the last of the Trepanier Fire evacuees would be allowed back in.
Most of the 1,550 people evacuated due to the fire had returned home by Tuesday. Just 258 people remained away from their homes Wednesday, including the residents of Desert Pines and the upper Trepanier area.
A lone police cruiser blocked Desert Pines Avenue until the appointed time of 5 p.m. The officer manning the roadblock said the first returning residents showed up at about 4:15.
“We know our houses are all standing,” said Mickie Johnson, who lives on Desert Pines Avenue. “We’re grateful for that.”
“I was expecting that the whole neighborhood was going to be lost,” said Johnson.
The Trepanier Fire began shortly after 3 p.m. Sunday and raced across the Trepanier Bench toward Lake Okanagan. The fire spread to the Trepanier Creek Gorge and began working its way up one side of the gorge toward Desert Pines.
“We saw on the news the other night the flames licking at our back gate,” said Johnson, who stayed with her family at the West Kelowna Best Western.
“Everybody’s been fabulous,” said Johnson. “The police department, the firemen, they’re all remarkable.”
Johnson said she is thankful no one was hurt but being away from home has not been easy.
“You don’t know what it’s like to be a homeless person until you are one,” said Johnson, adding, “There’s nothing like you’re own pillow.”
Gerry McQueen also waited on Trepanier Road Wednesday evening to be let back to his home. He said RCMP were in the Desert Pines neighborhood between 3 and 3:30 p.m. telling people to get ready to go.
“I’d say 3:20, I went to my neighbor’s and saw flames coming around the hill,” said McQueen. “As I was driving out, there were flames in the back of some of the houses.”
“When you could see flames 200 yards away, it was getting a little dicey,” said McQueen, who also stayed in West Kelowna with his family while on evacuation.
McQueen said he felt bad for police officers who manned the roadblock on Desert Pines Avenue because every five minutes someone was driving up to ask when they could go back home.
“Tempers were getting a little short,” said McQueen.
With no fanfare, just a few minutes before 5 o’clock, the police car blocking Desert Pines backed up, then drove off, leaving the road open for residents.
Expecting to see red fire retardant all over the neighborhood and evidence of things burned, the returning residents found, for the most part, their neighborhood in exactly the same way they left it.
No retardent stained the streets of Desert Pines. There was almost no evidence that an army of firefighters had been in the neighborhood, save for a few back gates that had been left open.
Nearly the entire neighborhood was surrounded by blackened ground yet the neighborhood itself got through the ordeal with barely a scratch.
One deck on a house on the edge of the Trepanier Creek Gorge was burned, but in other areas the ground is burned right up to fences, where the fire was stopped.
Some residents seemed bewildered that their neighborhood was in such good shape. Perhaps a fitting end to an evacuation that sent more than 1,500 people fleeing their homes.