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Major economic losses in B.C. Interior as wildfires snuff out big events

The Penticton Ironman, which was set to welcome 2,000 competitors, has been cancelled this year after non-essential travel restrictions were introduced in B.C.'s southern Interior due to major wildfires.  (Chad Hipolito/THE CANADIAN PRESS - image credit)
The Penticton Ironman, which was set to welcome 2,000 competitors, has been cancelled this year after non-essential travel restrictions were introduced in B.C.'s southern Interior due to major wildfires. (Chad Hipolito/THE CANADIAN PRESS - image credit)

Michael Shapcott doesn't know if his log cabin home on the Sorrento Centre grounds is still standing, nor how much of the picturesque Shuswap Lake acreage and conference centre he oversees has burned.

But still, he's feeling a sense of gratitude for the way his community has responded to the wildfire calamity in British Columbia's Shuswap region.

"There are so many acts of kindness from people," he said. "It's not turning the fire around and it's not rebuilding the houses that have burned down... but it is affirming that kind of human dignity, which at these times is really comforting and valuable."

The non profit Sorrento Centre, located in tiny Sorrento, B.C., around 60 kilometres east of Kamloops, was gearing up for the most lucrative two weeks on its annual calendar — a bluegrass instruction and music festival called Nimble Fingers that attracts over 1,500 visitors and guests and generates many hundreds of thousands of dollars in the local community.

The cancellation of Nimble Fingers is a major blow to the local economy, according to Shapcott. Adding to the losses is $35,000 of food brought in to serve to guests that's now been thrown out after the centre lost power a number of days ago.

All staff and town residents have been evacuated and with the wildfire only half a kilometre away, at last check, the future of the centre itself is as unclear as the smoky skies that surround it.

"[Monday] morning we had our first face-to-face staff meeting and we were just sharing stories about the kind of harrowing escape because some people literally could see the flames as they were loading their cars and heading out," he said.

"So, quite terrifying. And now what?... It's just too volatile to make any predictions at this point."

In Penticton, the situation is less dire with no immediate wildfire threat. Still, the city is suffering the economic sting of losing a major event to the effects of wildfires burning to the north and south in the Okanagan Valley.

A thick layer of smoke hangs over Sorrento Centre grounds in Sorrento, B.C., on August, 20, 2023.
A thick layer of smoke hangs over Sorrento Centre grounds in Sorrento, B.C., on August, 20, 2023.

A thick layer of smoke hangs over the Sorrento Centre grounds in Sorrento, B.C., on Sunday. (submitted by Sorrento Centre)

Organizers of the Aug. 27 Ironman Canada-Penticton had to cancel the race after non-essential travel restrictions were introduced in B.C.'s southern Interior to preserve temporary accommodations like motels, hotels and camp grounds for wildfire evacuees.

Close to 2,000 athletes were set to compete in the classic swim-bike-run endurance race, which is estimated to generate upwards of $15 million in economic activity annually in the city and nearby Okanagan communities.

"Anybody who's seen photos or who lives in the area gets it," said race director Susie Ernsting. "I guess the silver lining in this is we had all the water and Gatorade and a bunch of our food products already delivered so we've been able to donate those to the relief effort and evacuation centres."

Ernsting said competitors are welcome to return next year when the race celebrates its 40th anniversary.

"We're certainly encouraging athletes where possible to defer their entry to next year and to make sure they come spend their dollars here in Penticton next year because the community is going to need it," she said.

The Pentiction Dragon Boat Festival is set to welcome 75 teams and 2,000 athletes in early September, wildfires permitting.
The Pentiction Dragon Boat Festival is set to welcome 75 teams and 2,000 athletes in early September, wildfires permitting.

The Pentiction Dragon Boat Festival is set to welcome 75 teams and 2,000 paddlers to Skaha Lake in early September, wildfires permitting. (submitted by Penticton Dragon Boat Festival)

Meanwhile, organizers of the similarly large Penticton Dragon Boat Festival, scheduled for Sept. 9-10, are keeping a close eye on the wildfire and smoke situation.

With 75 teams and close to 2,000 paddlers expected to descend on the town and Skaha Lake in a few weeks time, race director Don Mulhall said as of now, the 23rd edition of the festival is going ahead as anticipated.

"Things change so quickly, the fires change so quickly, and who knows what we're going to be doing in [18] days," he said.

The travel restrictions are set to expire on Sept. 4 but could be extended, putting the festival in jeopardy. Mulhall is hopeful holding the event in the diminishing summer heat will work in its favour when it comes to wildfire concerns and overall impact to local businesses.

"Penticton is a very busy tourist town and so the fact that our event doesn't happen until the second weekend in September is kind of a good thing as far as economic impact. It's a quieter time and and we fill up all the hotels and restaurants," he said.