Record-pushing heat in the Okanagan over the long weekend has Penticton’s fire chief urging locals and visitors alike to be smart, lest they inadvertently spark a wildfire.

Currently, campfires are still allowed in the Kamloops Fire Centre, which encompasses the Okanagan Valley, although in the City of Penticton a fire permit is required.

“If you are going to have a fire in your backyard you need to have a registered fire pit and you can do that at City Hall or the Penticton Fire Department,” fire chief Larry Watkinson said.

Other concerns include the extreme temperatures hitting the region, with both heat and wind.

“With those two things combined it creates very dry indices for wildfire conditions in the Okanagan Valley, and right now we’re seeing upwards of high to extreme fire danger ratings in the South Okanagan. In particular in Penticton, we’re at a high to extreme condition. What we’re seeing is the rate of spread of a fire develops very rapidly,” Watkinson explained.

His department is addressing that through updated staffing and response protocols, and working closely with the BC Wildfire Service.

“We’re not staffing up but we are changing our response protocols,” Watkinson said. “Right now the protocol is, we will respond to any smoke that is in or around the area, and then we will transfer authority to the particular agency that has authority for that area.”

Thankfully, it’s been so far, so good this week as temperatures have risen.

“We haven’t had [any major incidents] locally. So that’s good for us. I think the awareness, people understanding the conditions out there is certainly helping but as we have visitors and guests to our community, that awareness is not the same,” Watkinson said.

“Let’s be fire smart. If you’re going to be camping in the wild country, a non-registered campground, just be sure you put your campfires out securely. Be responsible, let’s keep them to a small size that is enjoyable, and make sure that if you go to sleep, your fire’s out completely and if you leave it unattended you need to make sure it’s cold to the touch.”

Council ‘united’ after racism

Summerland council has reiterated that it is “united” against racism in the community and committed to the ongoing fight following a tumultuous few weeks.

The community saw startling racist graffiti on July 13 followed by the discovery that confederate flag bandanas were being sold at a local dollar store, which Mayor Toni Boot collected and destroyed. The store owner demanded a public apology, which Boot refused to do at a Monday council meeting.

In a united statement issued Wednesday from the mayor and six councillors, they reiterated an earlier decision to look into ways that Summerland can “start a community conversation on racism.”

“These will be difficult conversations. We must acknowledge our differences. We must listen. We must learn. We must move forward together. We must continue to build a strong community — one that is healthy, inclusive and welcoming to all. One that we can be proud to call home,” the statement reads.

Council has directed staff to come up with options for that community conversation space, and for funding earmarked by the Lekhi family, who were the original racism victims, for such a community project.

Teachers pan school plan

The head of the BC Teachers’ Federation is not a fan of the province’s plan to send students and teachers back to the classroom Sept. 8.

BCTF president Teri Mooring says the plan unveiled by Education Minister Rob Fleming and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry Wednesday needs more time, and a lot more work if it is going to keep everyone safe.

While acknowledging a lot of “excellent work” has gone into the plan, and the importance of returning students to the classroom, the announcement “misses the mark on several critical components, and should go back to the working groups who helped develop it.

“This plan is still a work in progress, and there is a lot of room for improvement,” Mooring said in a statement following the provincial announcement.

“I am confident that, with more authentic consultation and collaboration, we can get to a much better place.

“The reopening needs to be safe, careful, and get the buy-in of teachers, support staff, parents and students. If the plan is rushed, or too many questions are left unanswered, it won’t be successful.”

Some of the areas the BCTF ask government to address include:

  • Authentic consultation and collaboration at the local level between school districts and local unions.
  • Health and safety measures in place and tested before staff return to the school site and before students return to class.
  • Time in September for teachers to plan, prepare, and undertake the necessary in-service training and health and safety orientations to enable equitable learning conditions and safe workplaces.
  • Smaller classes to ensure all of the children, youth, and adults that share our school spaces can adhere to the physical distancing protocols we have all been asked to maintain during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • More clarity around the proposed “cohort model” and how that will keep teachers safe while ensuring students still get their full education.

Mooring says both teachers and support staff will need time in September to make adjustments to the new structure, make sure the safety protocols work and prepare resources and lessons necessary to meet the new reality.

In response, Fleming says the BCTF has been a critical part of the restart steering committee, and values their contributions.

He says he understands, and is OK with the fact some “are not quite there yet,” when it comes to the plan outlined Wednesday.

“We had a lot of discussions and similar concerns when we went to Stage 3 of the restart plan,” said Fleming.

“We will get there. She has my commitment that we will continue to collaborate with her organization.

“Professional teachers are vital to make sure these health and safety protocols are effective to keeping her members safe, to keeping students safe, but also to make sure we can move back to in call instruction so that kids can resume their learning careers successfully.”

After roughly four years, the rural community of Willowbrook has had a boil water notice lifted

After years stuck under a boil water notice, citizens of Willowbrook in rural Oliver can now drink their water freely.

On Wednesday, the area’s regional director Rick Knodel was thrilled to do the honours of officially lifting the notice, which he noted had been in place for about four years, at a small meetup at the well pump station.

He had introduced the project to the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen and had worked hard to get grant funding so the cost of upgrading to a chlorine contact system didn’t fall on the shoulders of his constituents.

“They’ve taken kind of a bit of a pounding with the RDOS taking [the water system] over, we have to operate to a higher level than the private owner did in the past,” Knodel said.

“I was fortunate enough to get good advice from our financial officer and our engineering staff and I was able to do this through gas tax grants, so it’s taken some of the load off residents.”

The residents have already struggled with the inconvenience of the boil water notice for years, and this upgrade would have added about $150 per year to local water bills over a course of 20 years had the grants not been acquired.

“Those are substantial increases to people on fixed incomes, and that’s a good portion of this neighbourhood,” he said.

Plus, he pointed out, boil water notices around the neighbourhood are not exactly attractive for people looking to buy in the community.

“It lowers the property value, a lot of these people are getting older and trying to sell their properties,” Knodel explained.

The chlorine contact system is just the first step in a longer road to getting the well system up to RDOS standards, but at least those notice signs can come down. And for Knodel on a personal note, it’s a major victory as an elected official serving his community.

“It’s nice to have your name attached to one good thing that actually comes to completion, and this is a biggie for me. They needed a little help and I’m glad to have been part of it.”

Toxic spill health emergency

An Osoyoos Landfill employee needed urgent medical help after hazardous material was improperly disposed.

On July 28 at 10:20 a.m., Osoyoos RCMP responded to the landfill, where a contractor’s employee had been compacting freshly dumped waste when he crushed a container of solid chlorine pucks.

The pucks, which had been dumped contrary to hazardous material regulations, gave off a discharge when compacted that the employee breathed in.

He immediately suffered a medical emergency and was lucky enough to be able to remove himself from the area and call for help.

The BC Ministry of Environment attended to assess the measures taken to isolate the area while waiting for the response contractor to arrive, while Work Safe BC inspected the site to determine how the spill occurred and to ensure compliance with occupational health and safety requirements.

“It is clear this spill was caused by someone improperly disposing of a pail of solid chlorine pucks into the Town’s waste system,” said Sgt. Jason Bayda, Osoyoos RCMP commander.

“This should be a reminder to all that disposing of hazardous materials into a waste container can cause serious injury or death to those working with the garbage down the line. Hazardous materials need to be disposed through the proper disposal/recycling process.”

The Town contacted an environmental agency who attended the Landfill and packaged the damaged pail and chlorine pucks in a UN-rated poly drum and took them for proper disposal. The loader that contacted the chemical was cleaned by the agency and they inspected the area to determine if there were any more distributed in the area.

Rising House Prices And Tanking Rental Market Show Pandemic’s Economic Divide

But the weakness in the rental market risks infecting the housing market.

High-rise condo towers at Humber Bay Park in the Toronto borough of Etobicoke. House prices in many parts of Canada are rising amid the pandemic, even as rental rates drop.

MONTREAL ― The COVID-19 lockdowns have exposed a divide in Canada’s job market, with low-income earners getting hit much harder than high-income earners in the wave of layoffs that has taken place since March.

Now that divide is making itself felt in the housing market. As those on the lower rungs of the income ladder struggle to make rent, middle and higher-income Canadians are jumping back into the housing market.

The result? Rental rates rates are falling steeply across Canada, even as the housing market shows signs of life, with prices even rising in some markets.

Rental rates across Canada have fallen for three straight months and are down 7.8 per cent, on average, from before the pandemic, rental site Rentals.ca reported this week.

“Tenants have been more dramatically impacted by pandemic-related job loss than homeowners, and are not currently looking for apartments or other rental accommodation,” Bullpen Research president Ben Myers said in a statement. “This sharp drop in demand has resulted in landlords dropping their asking rents in most major markets across the country.”

Rental rates have come down in many municipalities, according to this chart from Rentals.ca, with Victoria, B.C., and suburban cities in Greater Toronto leading the way.

Larger cities have been hit particularly hard. Rents per square foot have dropped steeply in Toronto since the pandemic and are now 9.5 per cent below their levels from a year ago, Rentals.ca reported.

Average asking rents jumped 3.8 per cent in May in Vancouver in May, but on a per square foot basis, condo rents fell 2.4 per cent in May, and are 5.4 per cent lower than a year ago, Rentals.ca said.

House prices rising in many markets

It’s a different story in the housing market, where real estate agents say they are seeing a sharp pick-up in activity since lockdowns started lifting. Buyers and sellers have become more comfortable with virtual tours and with social distancing measures taken during viewings, they note.

Many people pulled their houses off the market during the lockdowns, and as buyers come back, pressure is building on the market.

“The story lately has been a lack of overall inventory,” Toronto real estate Doug Vukasovic wrote in a recent report looking at the local housing market.

“For the year to date, a downward trend in pricing has already been corrected. … Even now, most properties are ripe for bidding wars, and many are getting snatched up within a few days of their being listed.”

Will the barrier break?

But the divide between the rental and housing markets could soon break down. That’s because a significant chunk of Canada’s homes, particularly condos, is in the hands of investors who rely on the rental market to pay their mortgages.

That could be a problem, especially for those investors who bought their properties in recent years at high prices. A recent report from TorontoRentals.com found that units in many of Toronto’s new condo buildings are losing money at current rental rates.

Some experts have warned that if this continues long enough, it could lead to forced selling in the housing market, driving up the supply and pushing down prices.

That could also happen if tourists don’t return to Canada’s cities, economists at National Bank of Canada wrote in a report at the end of May.

“Tourism is likely to be slow for some time, and the possibility cannot be excluded that lodgings currently marketed to tourists on short-term-rental platforms such as Airbnb will be put up for sale for lack of revenue,” economists Matthieu Arseneau and Alexandra Ducharme wrote.

Arseneau and Ducharme are forecasting a 10-per-cent drop in the Teranet house price index over the next year, which would make it the steepest one-year drop in Canadian house prices in decades.

Economists at National Bank of Canada predict a steeper house price decline in this downturn than in the previous three recessions.

Among major cities, the National Bank economists predict that Toronto will see the steepest price decline, with its price index dropping 13 per cent.

House prices will also fall in Vancouver (down 12 per cent), Calgary (down 10 per cent) and Montreal (down 7 per cent), they forecast.

However, prices could fall more than that if immigration to Canada comes in below expectations after the pandemic, Arseneau and Ducharme wrote. Immigration has fallen after three of the past four recessions, they noted.

They also noted that prices could fall further than expected if Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) tightens standards for mortgage insurance.

Days after the report came out, CMHC did just that, tightening the standards for the maximum amount of debt borrowers of insured mortgages can carry.

Experts estimate the change will reduce the maximum purchase price for a home with an insured mortgage by up to 12 per cent. Canada’s two privately-run mortgage insurers, Genworth and Canada Guaranty, have said they will not follow the CMHC’s move.

Negative virus test leds to Turtle Bay re-opening

 A Lake Country pub has re-opened after closing temporarily because of COVID-19 concerns.

Turtle Bay re-opened for business on Sunday. It had closed when a staff member believed they may have caught COVID-19.

“It is with great relief that we share with you that the Covid test results have come back NEGATIVE,” the pub posted on its website.

After a deep cleaning, the pub re-opened on Sunday at 11 a.m.

On Friday, Interior Health sent a release saying people may have been exposed to COVID-19 in Kelowna at Fossello’s clothing store, 565 Bernard Ave., on July 18 or on the morning of July 20 between 10 a.m. and noon.

They are asked to self-monitor themselves closely for symptoms of COVID-19 and to get tested if they begin to exhibit symptoms.

“Public health contact tracing is under way, and where possible, IH is reaching out directly to individuals who have been exposed,” said the statement.

Interior Health said Friday afternoon 86 COVID cases are now linked to “Kelowna cluster,” which arose from some private parties held around Canada Day. Seventy-four of those cases are Interior Health residents.

Another Kelowna General Hospital worker has been identified as having COVID-19, bringing the total to eight. The worker did not catch the coronavirus at the hospital, IH said.

COVID-19 testing

Testing is recommended for anyone experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, including:

• Fever

• Cough

• Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

• Loss of sense of taste or smell

• Other milder symptoms may include: runny nose, fatigue, body aches (muscles and joints aching), diarrhea, headache, sore throat, vomiting and red eyes.

 COVID-19 precautions

• Stay home and avoid travel if you have symptoms, even mild ones.

• Maintain physical distancing (two metres apart) and use masks when distancing is not possible.

• Wash your hands regularly and do not touch your face.

• Do not plan or attend gatherings of more than 50 people. Limit gatherings to out of doors whenever possible.

Home Sales Returned To Their Booming Ways In June Amid Pandemic

The average cost to buy a home in Canada has climbed to $539,000.

OTTAWA — The Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) says home sales continued to rebound in June after plunging earlier this year due to the pandemic.

The association said Wednesday that sales in June were up 63 per cent on a month-over-month basis, while the number of newly listed properties climbed 49.5 per cent from May to June.

Compared with a year ago, sales in June were up 15.2 per cent.

The actual national average price for homes sold in June was almost $539,000, up 6.5 per cent from the same month last year.

The real estate industry came to a near standstill earlier this year as non-essential businesses closed to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

CREA said the jump in sales returned them to “normal levels” for June, noting they were up 150 per cent from where they were in April.

But while it may be hitting “normal levels,” the overall market is “obviously not back to normal at this point,” said Shaun Cathcart, CREA’s senior economist.

“The market has recovered much faster than many would have thought, but what happens later this year remains a big question mark,” said Cathcart in a statement.

“That said, daily tracking suggests that July, at least, will be even stronger.”

Though the numbers, at a glance, appear to suggest there was not “anything amiss in the economy whatsoever,” BMO chief economist Douglas Porter said the housing market now must keep up its momentum.

Porter said that looking further out, the market will have to balance slowing immigration levels, low interest rates and short housing supply — creating a “tension” with “lasting scars from the shutdowns.”

“Home sales, prices and starts have effectively regained all the ground lost during the shutdown,” Porter wrote in a note to clients.

“However, fair point that some of this outsized strength is simply pent-up demand for the lost sales from the key spring season.”

Mortgage Deferrals ‘Buying Time’ For Canadians, Bank Of Canada Says

The pause in mortgage payments are giving people a chance to get back to work.

A view of Metro Vancouver is seen here at twilight on July 18, 2020, from Burnaby, B.C. Softening population growth from immigration could start to weaken house prices in the future.

TORONTO — A Bank of Canada economist says the current economic recovery could be different than the recovery from the financial crisis of 2008.

Mikael Khan, the Bank of Canada’s director of financial stability, said that while the employment rate has fallen due to the pandemic, house prices are recovering and keeping homeowners from filing for insolvency.

Khan said breaks from mortgage payments have bought homeowners some time to get back to work amid the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn.

“The fact that these deferrals have been available is really, really important,” said Khan. “Ultimately, what matters most when it comes to defaults is people having a job, having their incomes. What the deferrals are doing is they’re essentially buying time for that process to unfold.”

Khan, who spoke at the Move Smartly Toronto Real Estate Summit on Monday, has been studying mortgage defaults. He compared the COVID-19 pandemic to a natural disaster, such as the 2016 wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alta., which also involved a mortgage deferral recovery plan.

Bank of Canada research found that while the wildfires caused a bigger spike in employment insurance filings than the 2008 recession, the EI trend reversed much faster after the fires than in 2008.

The 2008 conditions set off a lengthy recession due to “an underlying fragility in the global financial system,” the research suggested. But the wildfires, like the COVID-19 pandemic, were a sudden shock.

“One thing that’s always very important when you’re facing a large negative shock is the initial conditions,” said Khan.

“In Fort McMurray, when the wildfires hit, that’s an area that had already been struggling for some time with the decline in oil prices that had occurred about a year or so prior, so financial stress was quite high,” Khan said.

“Now, at the national level, what we’ve been concerned about for many, many years is the high level of household debt. That’s the No. 1 pre-existing condition that was there when the pandemic struck.”

While there are some parallels, the rebuilding process from a pandemic remains more uncertain compared to a wildfire, the research said. Khan cited increased savings rates as an example of a fundamental shift with potential to affect how quickly the economy recovers from COVID-19.

Over the past few months, some have warned that it could lead to a deferral cliff once benefits —such as Canada Emergency Response Benefit and mortgage deferrals — run out.

“When it comes to bumpiness in the recovery … this question that has been in the background of most of our discussions is, ‘To what extent will we see defaults or insolvencies?’” said Khan. “I think it’s reasonable to expect some sort of increase. What we’d be concerned about, there, is a very large-scale increase.”

Khan said that when a mortgage is in default, it can be caused by a “dual trigger” of both unemployment and large decline in house prices. Home prices in many areas have recovered since the start of the pandemic, Khan said. The job market’s recovery will be key to determining the impact of mortgage deferrals, said Bank of Canada research cited by Khan.

Softening population growth from immigration could start to weaken house prices in the future. But for now, Khan said, it wouldn’t make sense for homeowners with healthy home equity to file for insolvency.

“Even in cases where a homeowner simply can’t make their mortgage payments anymore — as long as they have equity in their homes and the housing market is relatively stable — there’s always the option to simply sell without kind of resorting to those sorts of measures,” said Khan.

Quebec To Allow Public Gatherings Of Up To 250 People Starting Aug. 3

The new guidelines apply to public gatherings both indoors and outdoors.

 MONTREAL — Quebec says it will permit indoor and outdoor public gatherings of up to 250 people across the province beginning Aug. 3.

The directive announced Thursday doesn’t include private gatherings in places such as homes and chalets, where the 10-person limit remains in force.

By increasing the limit to 250 people from 50, the government is hoping to give a revenue boost to venues hosting sports and cultural events, which have been hit hard by the pandemic-induced shutdowns.

The new directive applies to all entertainment venues across Quebec, including concert halls, theatres and movie houses.

It also applies to places of worship, rented halls and amateur sport training and competitions.

Quebecers will still be required to keep a two-metre distance from one another and, when that’s not possible, to wear a mask.

“With this announcement, we are allowing the Quebec population to appreciate in greater numbers the many cultural spaces that delight the young and old,” Culture Minister Nathalie Roy said in a news release.

Anyone participating in an indoor event will need to wear a mask when they are moving around. They will be allowed to remove their mask when sitting down to watch a show or sporting event.

“Our analysis of the situation makes it possible to increase the number of people who can be accommodated in these places,” Masse said.

Quebec reported 142 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, but no additional deaths.

The total number of deaths in the province is 5,662, and total cases rose to 58,080. Health authorities said hospitalizations dropped by 14 to 221. Of those, 14 patients were in intensive care, a reduction of two.

Health officials completed 14,725 tests July 21, the last day for which data is available. At least 50,505 people have recovered from the disease.