Okanagan Mountain Park Fire
Firestorm '03: Beds needed for 33,050
Aug 18, 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.
In November, 1979, a train derailment in Mississauga forced evacuation of more than 200,000 people.
It remains the largest evacuation in Canadian history and the largest peacetime evacuation in North America until Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005.
BC has had its share of evacuations because of flood, chemical spills or fire but nothing like the evacuations necessary due to the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire in August and September of 2003.
According to the BC Forest Service, 33,050 people had to be evacuated - about 15 per cent of those twice and, in some cases, three times.
"The largest evacuation we had ever done was 500 people," says Beryl Itani, then the head of the Central Okanagan's Emergency Social Services program, the group responsible for looking after the evacuees.
"We prepared for maybe 1,000. We thought that would be the top number we would ever have to evacuate."
The Okanagan Mountain Park Fire would tax the limits of ESS resources and, at the same time, reveal the spirit, compassion and caring of the citizens of Kelowna.
So, just how then do you find room in the Okanagan, at the height of the summer tourist season, for more than 30,000 people?
One break was the fire conditions throughout the province.
"In 2003, a lot of people didn't come on holidays to the Okanagan because there were fires all around us," says Itani.
"And, we had this incredible system and this incredible volunteer (Ken Thompson) whose job was to find hotels and motels for people. He makes one call and within 10 minutes he knows how many beds there are in Kelowna and where they are."
They filled every hotel and motel bed.
"We had hotels calling us asking why we weren't using them and we had to tell them you don't accept the government rate and you will charge the evacuees over and above. With this situation we don't want the evacuees paying over and above," stated Itani.
"Those places agreed to charge the government rate and didn't charge any extra. So, we filled the Grand, we filled Manteo, we filled Lake Okanagan Resort. Every place was full."
The floor of Skyreach Place (Now Prospera Place) was full, large shopping centres allowed RV's and trailers to park in their parking lots and Trinity Baptist Church opened their doors to as many people as they could handle.
"Trinity did some amazing work with us with lodging," recalled Itani. "So much so that some people didn't want to go home."
The public at large also stepped up.
"We don't normally advertise billets but we had people coming to the reception centre saying 'we have room for a family and two dogs or we have room for elderly people.' We just matched them up and sent them off."
There was also the very real possibility the entire town would have been evacuated had the fire run through Gallaghers Canyon and into Rutland.
But, it was a situation on the westside that concerned Itani even more.
"One day Steve Kinsie came to me and said we have three fires burning on the westside and if we don't get them under control we will have to evacuate the westside," says Itani.
"And how many is that, 15,000, 17,000? I said I don't have any room."
She says south was not an option because of fires in Washington State. We can't go north because of the fires around Kamloops and we can't go east because of fires around Revelstoke and the Kootenays."
West was the only option.
"The only thing I could do was phone my ESS friends in the Lower Mainland and say I am sending you 17,000 of my very best friends - please take care of them."
Then the winds turned preventing fire from racing toward Rutland and fires on the westside were deftly brought under control.
"I firmly believe that some greater power decided we had had enough and we didn't need anymore."
Itani says the ESS couldn't have run as smoothly as it did without the help of, not only the volunteers, but the community at large.
"We started off with our regular 25 volunteers and kept adding from there," says Itani of the ESS.
"By the end of September when we closed everything down we had registered 1,100 volunteers. We couldn't have done it without them."
Many of those volunteers were themselves evacuees or had been put on evacuation alert.
She says businesses, restaurants, department stores, those not affected by the fire all stepped up in a big way.
"We had to feed the volunteers in both reception centres and the EOC. It was our responsibility to feed some of the fire fighters on the lines, the RCMP and ambulance people," says Itani.
"I still can't believe Costco. They supplied the EOC and both reception centres with food for the volunteers and they didn't charge the city of the province anything."
She says every water company provided massive quantities of bottled water.
"We had enough water that we laughed and said we had enough water to put the fire out ourselves."
Itani says Starbucks made sure they always had fresh coffee while restaurants continuously pumped out food.
"We had a couple of people who did nothing but menu plan and call restaurants so we had meals coming for the guys on the lines."
Ten years later Itani says she still gets tears in her eyes thinking about all the support and sacrifice and the heartache Kelowna residents had to endure.
She says she remembers standing in the parking lot of the fire hall, looking south and seeing large plumes of smoke go up, and then another.
"A fire fighter standing next to me said that's a house, and that's another house.
"A little while later there were plumes of black smoke and I said good grief what's that. They said that's a trestle."
When all was said and done, Itani says she is most proud of what the volunteers inside the ESS were able to accomplish.
"What really warms my heart was with the two big apartment fires we had recently I went into the reception centre to see what was going on and to see if I could lend a hand," says Itani who retired from the ESS a few years ago.
"I was so proud of Catherine (Williams) and the work the volunteers are doing. It said to me that all the hard work I had done for 30 years in getting the ESS program started and building it up to our biggest job in 2003, 2005, 2009, 2011 - they are carrying on that good work."
"It makes me proud of the ESS program and the volunteers we have here in Kelowna.
Tomorrow, You've gotta have faith.
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