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The escape

From Elmore’s Instagram

Canadian Olympian, Malindi Elmore, narrowly escaped threatening wildfires near her home in Kelowna, British Columbia.

Along with her husband Graham Hood, a former elite middle-distance-runner, and their two boys, they grabbed a few items to escape and fled by car.

She wrote on social media, “We went out to a celebratory dinner on Thursday night and when we came out, the air was ominous, heavy with smoke and howling with wind. Plumes of smoke filled the sky as the McDougall Creek fire, raging for days in the backcountry, was rushing towards the urban interface in West Kelowna.

We tucked the kids into bed, assuring them that the massive Lake Okanagan would protect them but that we would pray for people in West Kelowna.

Suddenly, fire crested the ridge and raced toward town in West Kelowna. It was so so windy and so so hot — the most terrible conditions for a raging fire. I knew I would not sleep but had no idea we would be racing away from the fire in short order.”

They landed at a friend’s and are now visiting her parents on Vancouver Island, where some of the smoke has made its way, but just enough to filter the sun a little.

The fires

It is hot out in the British Columbia region known as the Okanagan, it’s near desert-like. Locals pronounce it, Oh-ka-noggin. The name identifies the indigenous people of the area and the language they speak.

Kelowna, a city of approximately 130,000 lies on the east side of Lake Okanagan, however, there is West Kelowna too, which, yes, lies on the west side. The average high during the months of July and August hover over 27C or 82F. However, often reaches into the 30s and sometimes 40s or 90F and into the 100s. It’s dry, being mostly arid.

Around the big lake is the small town of Penticton on the south side, near Naramata, and Vernon to the north, Peachland, and Summerland. All small towns and all susceptible to these reoccurring fires. Apparently, summer is now “fire season.” 

At the time of this writing, there have been at least 50 structures destroyed in West Kelowna. The city has a population of just 32,000. Fifty structures are gone, for a town that small is devastating. A state of emergency has been declared. Currently, firefighters from all over Canada and Mexico, and as far away as South Africa are on the way.

The West Kelowna fire, known as the McDougall Creek fire, sent sparks through the air, carried by a breeze to the north side of Kelowna.  The Okanagan region is a playground in the summer with the big lake, small town feel and a world-class reputation as wine country. Wine tours are all the rage.

Elmore’s national record, post-race photo — happier times.

Elmore previously held the Canadian record in the marathon and finished ninth during the Tokyo Olympic Games marathon. She is lined up to do the Berlin Marathon on Sunday, September 24. She owns a best of 2:24:50 from the 2020 Houston Marathon.

“Berlin is still on,” she wrote by email. “Unless something crazier happens!”

Kelowna is home for Elmore. She grew up there and continues to train at a high level on the hundreds of kilometres of well-maintained trails. At the same time, she is coaching at the University of British Columbia — Okanagan campus. The team is nicknamed appropriately as the Heat. And of course, raising her two boys.

She continues…

“Then sirens started coming from all directions. I ran out onto the street and my neighbours were also panicky with rumours of embers that had travelled several kilometres over the lake to ignite spot fires around our neighbourhood.

Graham grabbed some stuff and packed our cars; I stood paralyzed on our deck watching the fire trucks race by. He yelled to me “Malindi, grab the kids, let’s go!!”. I ripped them from bed, my oldest saying “you, promised me it was safe!”

As we jumped into the car we were absolutely shocked to see, only 500m from our house, that our hillside was on fire we fled to friends for the night closer to town.

The next two days were agony as not only our neighbourhood was under siege — the fire was decimating West Kelowna and spreading North through Kelowna and Lake Country. We were surrounded and so, so worried about everyone, the people, pets, structures, wildlife, infrastructure and long-term damage to the city. There were a lot of tears.

We have so much gratitude to the fire crews and RCMP who saved people and homes working tirelessly for 48 hours as the weather worked against them. Our webcams showed heroic efforts saving our homes from encroaching flames. Fire crews from around BC came to our aid, offering their services. Thank you to the heroes who saved so much of our community, and condolences to those who lost their homes.
Crisis has a way of building community as we all look to help each other best we can.”