Okanagan Mountain Park Fire  

Naramata memories 2003 wildfire

Naramata resident Chris Blann had just returned from working on the coast in August of 2003, when he got a call from the Ministry of Forests.

Blann, a dangerous snag faller, was needed on the front lines of a fire burning in Okanagan Mountain Park.

The only access to the fire was by helicopter and boat. Once he got his chainsaws, gas and oil  together, a helicopter picked him up behind the Naramata Fire Hall and flew him in. 

"It was burning on the west side of Wild Horse Canyon in the park, and I was tasked to work with the forestry initial attack crews and contract forestry crews," he said.

It was just the beginning of the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire. Started by lightning in the park on Aug. 16, 2003, the wildfire eventually grew in size to 26,000 hectares. People on the Naramata and Kelowna side were impacted, with thousands of people evacuated and 238 homes lost or damaged.

Blann's responsibilities in the firestorm's early days, were to cut up burning logs  that could roll down and spread the fire, fell trees along the fire line made by crews and create helipads suitable for helicopters to land to move crews and equipment.

He worked for the most part for the forestry crews for three or four days on the Naramata side. It was difficult, exhausting work , because the fuel level was high and the weather refused to cooperate.

"It was absolutely nuts. I had seen a few fires, but never anything like this," he said. "The air tankers were dropping retardant and the forestry crews were helping direct the tankers and the fire was coming up to the retardant line, but it wasn't really stopping the spread of the fire because it was so dry and windy."

At no time did he feel he was in danger as he was in constant contact with crews and helicopter pilots. But working 12 hour days took a toll.

Not only did he have to contend with the fierce flames, his family back at home in Naramata was put on evacuation alert.

"We packed up everything and were ready to go," he said.

Eventually, about three or four days in, the wind shifted and blew up from the south, taking Naramata out of harm's way.

"We were able to breathe a sigh of relief,  but then it burned up Kelowna, and our thoughts were with them," he said.

Longtime Naramata firefighter Tony Troveo, remembers going golfing the morning after the storm which caused the fire. As he drove home from the golf course, he could see smoke and heard on the radio that the fire had grown in size.

As the fire crept closer to Chute Lake Resort, the volunteer firefighters were called in to work.

"At that point the lodge was being evacuated, and we stayed there to make sure no one came in or out," said Troveo.

The fire department also made a stand at Glenfir to protect a couple of houses. They were able to save them by putting a perimeter sprinkler system around one of the homes, said Troveo.

The fire was also hitting close to home. Troveo's family was one of hundreds put on evacuation alert in Naramata.

"Around the same time as the evacuation alert at Indian Rock, there was an evacuation alert for Naramata," he said. "Now it becomes even bigger. You are protecting your own place along with the whole community.

It was pretty surreal thinking we will all have to get out of here pretty soon."

As a stage of emergency was declared, firefighters from all over the province were stationed at the Naramata Fire Hall, prepared to deal with whatever came next.

"It just went from a smoke sighting to the flames being 3 km from Chute Lake, to it's going to engulf Naramata," he said. "Then the wind blew north and a lot of the apparatus staged at the fire hall was moved to Kelowna."

Former Naramata Fire Chief Grahame Baker recalls flying over the fire in the early days with a BC forestry guy and being told  there was no telling what direction it would go

He did some preparation with firefighters and not long after that all Hell broke loose.

"The fire was moving toward Naramata, so we moved into Glenfir and Indian Rock," he said. "I was in charge at the local level and was just above Indian Rock, where I could get a good view of the fire coming over the hill."

Glenfir got hit pretty hard and they were involved in structure protection for a good 24 hours.

After other fire departments from all over the province showed up, they were divided into north and south sections, and Baker's role was to handle structural fire service in the south end.

He met with other fire officials every day at the Penticton Fire Hall to create trigger points to determine where evacuations might be needed. 

"We were dealing with fuel for trucks, feeding the firefighters and accommodations for them," he said. "At one point there were 35 different fire departments here."

His worst experience, by far, was when a fire truck from Langford rolled up on Naramata Road.

"When the truck rolled, one of the injured firefighters was on top of the radio cutting off communication," he said. "A guy passing it called me, and the Canadian military started a rescue operation. Naramata fire then arrived and it was a rescue together.

One of the firefighters was severely  injured and others also sustained injuries, and all of a sudden all of the press were everywhere."

Although the wind shifted and Kelowna took the brunt of the blaze, Baker  remained responsible for the south end command until September, when the weather started cooling off.

"It was a stressful time," he said. "But it takes things like what happened to bring people together, and the support of the community was great."

When Doreen Reed, who  lives at Chute Lake Resort with her husband Gary Reed, heard about the fire, she looked at a map and thought they were OK.

Not long after that someone knocked on their door and told them they needed to leave immediately.

"I was gathering my animals, my staff, computer and safe and every time I went to get someting else, he was there making sure I was leaving," she said.

Her husband was in downtown Penticton at the time and when she told him they were evacuated, he decided to drive up.

"He was stopped at the bottom of the road, but he got through," she said. "As I was coming down, they said they were going to send someone up to arrest him.

A policeman went up and said, I just see an old man trying to save his place. So he wasn't arrested."

 Tom Chapman, the former RDOS director for Naramata,  lived in Glenfir at the time.

After hearing the storm, he recalls thinking the lightning had the potential to start a fire.

"I grew up here, so I just knew it, with it being so dry," he said.

Not long after, he and his neighbours were told to evacuate.

Most people, along with their horses and smaller pets left, but Chapman chose to stay behind.

"I had been a firefighter and a tree faller and I knew what it was like," he said. "The main thing is you work hard to build a house and a farm and you don't want to see it all wiped out."

As the fire spread,  he remembers grabbing a bottle of red wine and climbing with a neighbour up to a ridge to watch the flames.

"We marvelled at the size of the flames and the noise. It sounded like 100 747 jets," he said.

The next morning he went to work assisting with cutting a fire guard from Chute Lake Road to Paradise Ranch. Once the fire guard went in, a back burn was lit.

"Back burns can be very risky, but in our case it was well timed," he said. "Although 17 acres of  my property burned and we lost a lot of very good timber, my house was saved."

Once the fire was finally under control, the whole community came together to recognize firefighters at a big dance held in October, said Chapman.

He hopes a firestorm, like the one he and others fought in 2003, never happens again.

But he believes it could.

"There will be more catastrophic fires as time goes on, if we don't manage our fuel," he said. "People need to get their heads around prescribed burns to reduce the fuel level."

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