Melissa Malejko was gliding across a canyon in Mexico with her husband and daughter in 2018 when she fell in love with zip lining.


“It’s exhilarating,” Malejko said. “And it’s a little frightening because you’re so far off the ground and moving so fast. But to me, it’s a safe thrill.”

When Malejko, a biking instructor, returned home to Calgary, she couldn’t find any zip lining spots in Alberta. After some research, she singled out one in Radium Hot Springs, B.C., a three-hour drive from Calgary.

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Her next few years were punctuated by excursions outside the city where the family camped or mountain biked. But the desire to zip across a forest stewed inside her until her family planned a trip to Radium this summer, hoping to avoid fires. They were out of luck.

Conflagrations have torn through forests of B.C., swallowing 14,100 square kilometres of land as of mid-July, displacing thousands of residents and making this year’s wildfire season in the province the most destructive on record.

Currently, 356 active wildfires are raging across the province, including in the B.C. Interior and its eastern regions — major tourist spots for Albertans.

Small-town destinations such as Kamloops, Cranbrook, Kimberley, Radium and Invermere are flanked by blazes that “pose a threat to public safety,” according to the B.C. Wildfire Service.
Residents of nearly 100 properties in the Shuswap region were ordered out by its regional district late Wednesday. An evacuation alert was posted for 75 more properties in the area about 20 kilometres north of Chase, B.C.

The alerts also affect the tiny community of Gold Bridge and several surrounding areas, while another evacuation order covering more than 200 properties surrounding Gun and Lajoie lakes remains active.

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

The Eagle Bluff blaze, which pushed into South Okanagan last week, has prompted evacuation orders for 732 properties and alerts for 2,094 more.

The Eagle Bluff wildfire is seen burning outside Osoyoos on July 29. Photo by Melissa Genberg /The Canadian Press

The threat of fire has convinced some to cancel their bookings. But based on interviews with several tourism operators, demand for reservations remain strong as people cautiously squeeze their summer plans into the fleeting vacation season.

Ellen Walker-Mathews, CEO of the Thompson-Okanagan Tourism Association, said the Eagle Bluff fire dissuaded tourists from the area.

It was estimated that only three-quarters of a popular resort in the village was filled by occupants, many of whom were evacuees and firefighters. However, favourable winds meant the threat from the blaze has largely passed, and Walker-Mathews, who has spoken with her hotel partners in the region, said businesses are open in the area.

The region’s tourism industry has enjoyed a relatively strong year.

According to data collected by the Thompson-Okanagan Tourism Association, Canadian visitors travelling to the region from January to June rose by 4.5 per cent from 2022, totalling more than 2.4 million tourists, June being the busiest month.

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

However, occupancy in major hotels has softened, says the chair of the Kamloops Accommodation Association.

Angela Tasker, also director of sales at the Coast Kamloops Hotel, said the establishment has witnessed a slight drop in occupants. Those rooms are filled by firefighters — and until recently — evacuees fleeing the Ross Moore Wildfire.

But the hotel hasn’t been subject to an alert or an order to leave, which has meant occupancy has been relatively stable. Not every hotel is as fortunate.

Recommended from Editorial

Jason Upton, manager of the Lac Le Jeune Nature Resort south of Kamloops, said the resort is open but remains on evacuation alert, and maintaining bookings is difficult since the fire is burning just a few kilometres away.

The resort had been close to selling out for the entire upcoming long weekend, Upton said, but the threat of nearby fire has led to cancellations by all but three guests.

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

For hotels like the Coast, the slight fall in visitors may not be caused by swelling wildfires, but by people’s shrinking budgets, Tasker said. “We haven’t seen fires affect occupancy.”

This July 24, 2023, handout image released by the British Columbia Wildfire Service, shows an aerial view of the Horsethief Creek wildfire, approximately 10 kilometres west of Invermere, British Columbia, Canada. Photo by HANDOUT/BC Wildfire Service/

It’s an observation shared by Walker-Mathews, who said tourism operators in the community have told her that many visitors have chosen to stay in Airbnb rentals, accounting for a fall in occupancy at hotels.

However, a further loss of tourists has been averted thanks to effective communication around wildfires, Walker-Mathews added. “I think the media has gotten much better at giving accurate data around what’s going on,” she said, adding that tourists are using that information to plan their trips away from the fires.

“We used to get a lot of what I would call dramatic reporting that says British Columbia is on fire. Not true.”

But fires have factored into people’s summer plans. Don McCormick, mayor of Kimberley, B.C., said people have adopted a “wait-and-see” approach. That means bookings tend to be made a week in advance as they monitor the St. Mary’s River Wildfire that rages to the village’s east.

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

“It makes it a little less certain for the tourism accommodators in town for doing their planning,” he said.

In Cranbrook, which has been affected by the same wildfire, Shaun Penner fields five to 10 calls a day from tourists concerned about the blaze. They ask about smoke conditions, highway closures and evacuation orders.

“They just want to be 100 per cent sure before they make the trek,” said Penner, who manages the town’s only two visitor centres.

Malejko, who plans to go to Radium Hot Springs this summer, also wants to ensure her safety. She scrolls through the news daily, checking for updates by the B.C. Wildfire Service website. Her fears almost came true two weeks ago as a 300-hectare blaze blew near Invermere and Radium Hot Springs.

But wildfire crews have contained the bulk of the flames, and Radium remains open. “Motels are open, hotels are open, zip lines are open and the rafting companies are still doing tours,” Mayor Mike Gray told Postmedia.

However, he emphasized that tourists have a responsibility to be careful while visiting.

Malejko felt reassured. “All of a sudden, I’m feeling more optimistic,” she said. “Because things are improving from the mayor’s perspective, and that means things are improving from everybody else’s perspective, too.”

— With files from the Canadian Press