Okanagan Mountain Park Fire
Firestorm '03: From spark to inferno
Aug 16, 2013 / 5:00 am
This is the 10th anniversary of Firestorm - the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire that gripped Kelowna and brought the world to our doorstep during the latter half of August, 2003. Castanet reporter Wayne Moore has put together a series of stories looking at the fire and the people whose lives were changed forever.
Sometime during the early morning hours of Saturday, Aug. 15, Mother Nature touched her hand down on on a forested area south of the Kelowna city boundaries across Okanagan Lake from Peachland.
It was small, nothing we haven't seen before or since many times.
"I was at home. I got a call from Sid LeBeau who was in charge of our emergency program at the time," recalls then Fire Chief, Gerry Zimmermann.
"Sid said there had been a lightning strike across from Peachland and forestry had no way of getting their people there and asked if was okay to use our rescue boat to ferry them across and I said absolutely. At that point I thought they will put it out, they're on top of it and this will be short lived."
No such luck.
And, while Zimmermann's staff assisted forestry in getting in and out of the area, that was all they were able to do, despite a desire to do more.
"My fire fighters that were ferrying the forestry people across radioed back and said 'get us some extra people and we'll put it out or help them put it out.' "I said no, it's out of our jurisdiction," says Zimmermann.
"I got the same call later that night. There were people from our department that wanted to do that, had wanted to get extra resources and try. But, in those days we respected jurisdictions."
Unless they were asked to assist, they didn't says Zimmermann.
"After the fire was over one of the things we did as a department was said there are no more boundaries. If it's happening we're going and staying until we are satisfied it's under control."
Under control was a phrase not used to describe the Okanagan Mountain Park fire until late September, nearly six weeks after that original lightning strike.
In between, some 26,000 hectares of forest and more than 230 homes had been lost. The fire guard was a massive 197 kilometres.
Initially, Zimmermann says he, and many others believed the fire would stay where it was - in fact, there was more concern for communities to the south than there was for points in Kelowna.
"We thought it was going south into the Naramata area. Reality kicked in probably on Wednesday for me," says Zimmermann.
It wasn't until that first Monday (August 17) when flames, massive flames, could be seen in the hills south of the Mission.
"We realized the threat was there," stated Zimmermann who had spoken with City Council earlier that day asking for permission to use city resources to fight structure fires if necessary outside the southern reaches of the city boundaries.
The permission was granted.
As the fire grew in size and intensity early in the week to 2,200 hectares (Monday), 2,800 hectares (Tuesday) and 11,000 hectares (Wednesday), evacuation plans were starting to take shape to the north and south.
Cabins in the Chute Lake area and 45 homes at the end of Lakeshore Road were evacuated Monday, 2,000 upper Mission residents were put on alert Tuesday awhile the tiny communities of Indian Rock and Glenfir north of Naramata were evacuated.
By Wednesday as the fire pushed south, 2,000 people in Naramata were put on evacuation alert.
It was then Zimmermann said reality really kicked in for Kelowna as the winds shifted.
Wednesday, fanned by a change in wind direction, the fire turned north.
"The first homes we lost were Thursday evening (Aug. 21) around 9 p.m. The sad thing was we had our resources there but Rimrock and Timberline were a one-way in and one-way out predicament," says Zimmermann of that night.
"There were acreages so the houses were more spread out. The threat was not from a wall of fire but from embers blowing over the top. You could be fighting a fire here and have a house start up a half mile away."
Zimmermann says they he had to pull the people out because there was only one way out.
"It was probably one of the scariest things I had to deal with. If it was a wall of fire coming at us you can make a plan for that. When the winds are blowing it can be anywhere," says Zimmermann.
"We were told that embers could start fires up to 2km away."
While the thought of losing even one home was tough for Zimmermann and his crew to take, Thursday losses in Rimrock and Timberline only served as a warm-up to what would happen just 24 hours later.
Friday, Aug. 22, FIRESTORM.
By mid afternoon the city looked like something out of a Stephen King novel. High smoke enveloped much of Kelowna bringing with it an eerie darkness - an omen of things to come.
4 p.m. looked like midnight.
"It was hard to comprehend. "We knew houses were popping - they were just exploding," says Zimmermann recalling that night.
"I recall radioing up to Len Moody who was my commander up there. I asked how many are going. I expected him to say 25 or 30. He said maybe a hundred and probably a heck of a lot more than that."
Zimmermann says his heart sank - he felt helpless.
"It's your job to be in there. It was going through my mind - should I pull everybody out. That wasn't an option - that couldn't be an option," says Zimmermann still emotional 10 years later.
"Am I going to lose anybody tonight. It was probably the sickest feeling I have ever had."
Tomorrow, a mayor's role in times of crisis.
Read more Okanagan Mountain Park Fire articles
- Firestorm '03: Kelowna's finest hour Aug 25
- Firestorm '03: As The Fire Raged Aug 24
- Firestorm '03: Time to re-build Aug 23
- Firestorm '03: Aug. 22 'Like a war zone' Aug 22
- Firestorm '03: Hell on the front lines Aug 21