Homeowner who spent years building off-grid cabin loses ‘everything’ in Keremeos Creek wildfire

Les Murzsa says he spent more than a decade focusing his time and savings on building the off-grid home he’d hoped to own for most of his adult life.

One project at a time, he renovated the wooden cabin at the south end of Green Mountain Road, near Keremeos, B.C., until there was only one job left: finishing up the new roof.

Murzsa was in the process of installing the last shingles when a wildfire swept through the area and destroyed the entire house on Friday, leaving its owner with nothing but a pile of ash.

“My house burned so thoroughly and completely, there is literally six inches of dust on the ground. It’s completely gone,” said Mursza, 50. 

“I could clean up my house with a rake.”

Mursza, who escaped and drove to a hotel, is the only person so far who has lost their home in what’s known as the Keremeos Creek wildfire. The blaze, burning about 21 kilometres to the southwest of Penticton, is still estimated at almost 28 square kilometres in size — an area six times the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park. 

Smoke rises from a rocky hilltop, with a road visible beneath it.
The southwest corner of the Keremeos Creek wildfire is pictured on Tuesday. As of Wednesday, the fire was one of five fires of note in B.C. (Supplied by the B.C. Wildfire Service)

Mursza says he smelled the fire before he saw it on Friday.

“I opened my window for some fresh air and I immediately smelled smoke. I thought that was a really bad sign on a hot, sunny day at 40 degrees, so I looked out my window and I could see the start of the fire. It was just a small, maybe five-acre fire with a bit of white smoke,” he said, speaking in an interview from the hotel where he’s stayed since losing his home.

“The winds picked up and, unfortunately, the fire just started heading straight toward my area. Eventually, it started to creep down toward the road and it was directly across the street from my house. 

“Ashes just started raining all over my property and firefighters came and told me to get out of the area and shortly after that, my house burned to the ground.”

Mursza said he packed important paperwork, a few clothes, his favourite guitars and harmonica collection into his car and fled before flames reached his property. Everything else was lost, he said.

The house and its contents weren’t insured because of the building’s remote location, near the foot of Apex Mountain, he added.

Mursza has stayed in a hotel since Friday, with the cost covered by Emergency Services B.C. In a few days, he’ll move to a friend’s home until he figures out his next move.

“People have been calling me, people I haven’t heard from for 30 years,” he said. “The support has been really nice.”

Crews hoping for cooler weather

The fire is one of dozens that broke out across the province in the past week, with many sparked by thousands of lightning strikes on the weekend. The B.C. Wildfire Service said 75 per cent of fires this season have been caused by lightning, up from the normal seasonal average of 60 per cent.

Authorities hope to take advantage of cooler weather Wednesday to fight the wildfires, most of which are concentrated in the Kamloops Fire Centre region in the southern Interior. 

The wildfire service’s dashboard shows there have been 151 new fires across the province in the past seven days, but most of them are either out, under control or being held by firefighters.

Nearly half of the new fires were sparked in the Kamloops Fire Centre area. Nine of those are still considered out of control.

The Keremeos fire has prompted evacuation orders for 324 properties, with another 479 properties on evacuation alert. On Wednesday, the B.C. Wildfire Service said the fire is still out of control and expected to continue growing.

A total of 144 firefighters and eight helicopters are battling the flames, along with some heavy equipment.

The fire has prompted periodic closures of Highway 3A. Anyone travelling through the area should check DriveBC before setting out.

WATCH | Uncertainty, concern in Keremeos area as wildfire spreads:

Growing southern B.C. wildfire leads to more evacuations

A growing wildfire has prompted more evacuations in southern British Columbia, with officials urging people to obey orders.

Other fires of note

Another significant wildfire in the Interior, the Nohomin Creek fire to the northwest of Lytton, is still growing “steadily” in steep, rocky terrain. The latest estimate for its size is 37 square kilometres.

Three other fires have been upgraded to fires of note, meaning they are highly visible or pose a potential threat to public safety:

  • The Connell Ridge fire around 15 kilometres south of Cranbrook, about five square kilometres in size.
  • The Watching Creek fire around 16 kilometres northwest of Kamloops, about two square kilometres in size.
  • The Maria Creek fire around 30 kilometres northwest of Cache Creek, about 10 square kilometres in size.
  • The Briggs Creek fire around 12 kilometres west of Kaslo, about 15 square kilometres in size.

Water bomber makes forced landing

On Tuesday, a water-bomber aircraft helping fight wildfires made a forced landing after an engine failure.

The B.C. Wildfire Service said the contracted Conair 802 Air Tractor Fireboss Skimmer aircraft ran into trouble during operations on the Connell Ridge wildfire, near Cranbrook, B.C.

The pilot was able to safely complete a forced landing and was taken to hospital for medical assessment, according to a statement.

The Connell Ridge wildfire currently covers about 1.5 square kilometres.

On Thursday, all campfires will be banned across the Coastal Fire Centre on Thursday, which includes the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island, the Sea-to-Sky corridor and Sunshine Coast but excludes Haida Gwaii.

Similar, previously announced bans will come into effect for the Southeast Fire Centre and Kamloops Fire Centre regions on the same day.

A map showing the different regional fire centres within British Columbia.
A map showing the different regional fire centres within British Columbia. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

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