Okanagan Mountain Park Fire
Firestorm '03: Spirit shaken not broken
Aug 19, 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.
How often have you heard 'Kelowna is a very unfriendly place.'
Dozens? Hundreds? Perhaps you've felt and said the same thing.
If you were in Kelowna during two or three frightful weeks at the end of summer, that changed.
Some say the change can still be felt today.
"I think it showed the character of the city," says Tim Schroeder, Pastor at Trinity Baptist Church.
"Everybody says Kelowna isn't really a community because we come from everywhere. But, it (Okanagan Mountain Park Fire) revealed we have more depth than that."
As Chaplin to the Kelowna Fire Department and the leader of a congregation that was registered as a place that would help in case of emergency, Pastor Schroeder had a unique insight into the inner psyche of the city.
Schroeder had unfettered access to the fire hall and the command centre.
"I believe very much in a theology of presence. I wasn't there to give speeches or motivation of encouragement of anything else," says Schroeder of the time he spent at the fire hall.
"Sometimes just being there communicates something. I made a point at least two or three times a day to be by the fire hall. People would all see me and they would know I represented a segment of the community that was on their side."
That was important - especially as the evacuations and the loss of homes mounted.
Schroeder says watching the homes burn, firefighters at the hall felt they had let the community down. They felt really bad.
The hardest part he said was to tell fire fighters they needed the time to rest, the time to recover
"Emergency services in general - there is an intense camaraderie. When they were ordered to stay out for a day or two, that was the worst thing you could do to them.
They wanted to go back in. They wanted to be in there with their brothers."
He says there was a sense that if they had done something different, perhaps this could have been prevented.
"I think we all know they couldn't have," says Schroeder.
It was the caring, the compassion that Pastor Schroeder remembers most - how people were willing to do whatever was needed.
"I was here one night at 11 and I was back at 6 or 6:30 the next morning and I noticed our parking lot had been hosed down - had been washed," remembered Schroeder.
"I knew the volunteers we had here. It was a recently retired businessman - a very high profile businessman in this tow worth tons of money. He was volunteering."
Several hundred people were using Trinity Baptist Church as their home after being evacuated. Some had lost their homes.
"These poor people had just lost their homes and, you know what the town was like. There was smoke and charred embers everywhere. The last thing they needed was to be reminded by the embers so he spent his entire shift at 3 a.m. hosing down the parking lot.
To me that revealed something. They might not know their neighbours but there was something there. It was quite an experience."
Schroeder also recalled a chance meeting with a family, members of his congregation.
It was Saturday night after a majority of the homes had been lost in the upper Mission area.
It was late and he had stopped by Starbucks at the mall on his way to his office to prepare his sermon for the following morning.
"There was a mom, a dad and a 15-year old boy all with their arms around each other - now, 15 year old boys don't like to be hugged, especially in public," recalls Schroeder.
"I said how are you doing, a very common greeting that meant more than it does today. How are you doing meant something."
Schroeder says that was the night before the big gathering at the church where people were told if they lost their homes.
"He said I guess we will find out tomorrow whether we have a house or not. I said I am sorry.
"He looked at me and said sorry? Everything that matters is standing right here at Starbucks. We are all here and we're okay."
While he doesn't underestimate the loss people suffered but, what matters most (people) we didn't lose.
"Everybody got their values in perspective - almost everybody.
Schroeder also recalls the Sunday afternoon when people packed into his church to hear whether or not they had lost their homes.
He was part of that meeting and credits Chief (Gerry) Zimmermann with stepping up to the plate when others may not have.
"I was in the meeting where it was decided how people were going to be informed. We all had our say and Gerry, who had the final decision, said I'm the chief. Whether it's good news or bad news it's my job. I'll deliver it," says Schroeder.
"We were all scared to come out but hen we walked onto that platform 1,400 or 1,500 people gave Gerry a standing ovation as he was there to tell them they had lost their homes - you can't forget that."
Like most who had played a part, Schroeder remembers the feeling of togetherness throughout the fire.
"Everybody stepped up and did their part. I didn't see anybody looking for glory. I saw pastors from other churches in the city wearing a Trinity volunteer name tag because they wanted to help," added Schroeder.
"We got credit but it was everybody. When you talk about people stepping up, there were a lot of people - most of whom we will never know."
Tomorrow: Plans to evacuate an entire city.
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