Okanagan Mountain Park Fire
Firestorm 03: Kelowna open for business
Aug 17, 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.
During his successful 2011 election campaign, Walter Gray's mantra was 'Kelowna is open for business.'
As Kelowna's mayor in the summer of 2003, Gray's job was to trumpet much the same message.
Gray was less than one year into his third term as mayor when the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire ravaged chaos throughout his community.
Simplistic as it may seem, Gray's role during the fires was more cheerleader and tourism trumpeter than anything else.
"I remember one of my roles was to tell would be tourists that everything is fine in Kelowna - and it was," remembered Gray.
"Some days ash was falling all over the city but, 'come to Kelowna, it's still the great summer place you always remembered.' "
Gray says the role of mayor during any disaster in Canada is so much different than what we see south of the border.
"In the United States politicians get involved up to their armpits in emergencies," says Gray.
"In Canada the politicians get very involved in creating, and being responsible for, an emergency plan. But, once the emergency happens the politicians turn over control of the emergency or, the city in this case, to those who are trained for and responsible for handling and managing the emergency."
Gray says matter of factly, "we don't have those knee jerk, inexperienced decision makers at time of emergency."
"It's still the mayor's community but the real role is to try and hold the people together. It was very important the people were calm," says Gray.
"It was very important the people were informed and it was very important people were recruited when needed and told to stay away when they weren't welcome. That role was important."
The bottom line according to Gray, PR was his job, fighting the fire was left to the experts.
"I could have walked into the war room (as I did many times) and they had every right to say Mr. Mayor, this is our fire not yours. I did go there quite often but never gave an indication I was there to interfere," says Gray.
"I was there to get a better sense of hat was happening so if I was being interviewed I didn't have to go to the media briefings to know what was going on. I got the news as it was happening."
The mayor also remembers the cooperation between those in charge and the media, both from Kelowna and around the world.
Gray says communication between the Emergency Response Centre, the media and the public was exceptional during the fire.
He placed a lot of the credit to Karen Cairnes who, at the time, was working in the city's communications department.
"(Karen) had been loaned to the City of Kamloops because of the very poor communications that was going on with their fire. She learned what not to do," says Gray.
"She would have all the television crews lined up in a room and tell them only one camera is going up and you have to agree to share the footage. Those were the rules."
He says feeding all the media the same information at the same time allowed them to do the job of getting the story out accurately and not fighting over trying to get it first.
"Because everyone was singing from the same songbook it gave the public a sense of security. I think that played a role in there being no tragedies during the fire."
While the mayor was not at the heart of day-to-day decision making he says tough decisions did have to be made.
He recalls one such scenario that he just learned about over the past year or so.
City Manager, Ron Mattiussi oversaw the fire department meaning many decisions fell on his doorstep.
Gray says one of those involved about two dozen homes in the Crawford Estates area.
"Word came in to Ron that you are going to have a decision to make and you'll have to make it in the hour. We may have to bulldoze out about two dozen homes," recalls Gray.
"Literally take an entire street out with bulldozers to create a fire guard in anticipation of the winds going in a certain direction. At the end of the day Ron, in consultation with the fire chief, made the decision not to. As if God's hand was on his shoulder the wind changed direction.
"I think that was the most taxing hour of his life."
Still, 10 years later, it's not the fire itself or the destruction Gray remembers most but the people - the ordinary citizen whose lives were uprooted in one form or another.
"My recollection is really the strength and empowerment it gave the people who lived here," says Gray.
"It didn't matter if you were the fire chief or somebody retired living on the third floor of an apartment building on Pandosy Street. It made you feel differently about the city in which you lived."
It brought people together.
"When you have one-third of your city evacuated and the other two-thirds busy in their own lives and also assisting those who were evacuated it allows people to get to know their neighbours a little more," says Gray.
"And, I don't think that spirit has disappeared over the 10 years. If you had to look back and say was there a positive outcome from the fire I guess that would be one of them. It made people from Kelowna know they were from a great place called Kelowna."
In light of recent disasters such as the devastating floods in southern Alberta or the railway explosion in Quebec, Gray says what we went through pales in comparison.
Tomorrow, evacuating 30,300 people - more than once.
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