Okanagan Mountain Park Fire
Firestorm '03: hours from total evacuation
Aug 20, 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.
It's bad enough having to evacuate some 30,000 people.
Trying to get them out in an orderly fashion - registering them and finding accommodations for those with nowhere else to go.
What if that number was 90,000 or more.
That's the prospect that faced Kelowna during the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire.
Kerry Solinsky was a Staff Sgt. with the Kelowna RCMP Detachment at the time.
He was also the Tach Team Commander, in charge of evacuations and security.
That meant making plans for and executing evacuation plans.
As the fire raged through Kettle Valley and East Kelowna there were concerns the blaze could get away in the Gallaghers Canyon area.
Had that been the case it would have meant a total evacuation of the city.
It came close.
"I would say within hours," recalls Solinsky.
"We were looking at the power line across the south slope. The fire did drop below that but it didn't drop far enough that we had to start these evacuations."
Because of the way the winds were blowing and the behaviour of the fire, Solinsky says it dipped below that line but climbed back up again.
"That's why we evacuated everything out to the airport because our concern was that if it came into Mission Creek and the canyon it would run that whole canyon and then it would be gone Black Mountain and all the grasslands."
Solinsky says putting a plan that massive together meant knowing where to put people, know where they could go and, more importantly, where they couldn't go.
He says a brief four-and-a-half hour briefing from a fire behaviour specialist helped him learn how to move people around so they wouldn't be in harm's way.
"To be honest with you if I didn't spend that four and a half hours with her when the fire started moving through Kettle Valley we probably would have moved people into harm's way believing it wouldn't hit Crawford," says Solinsky.
As for the bigger picture.
"We couldn't use Highway 33, that was out of the question. We had to use the major arteries – Highway 97 to go north and south and we had Glenmore Road to get people out to Winfield," says Solinsky.
"Our focus was to figure out how to get people to the main highways and filter them out so that we are not running into traffic jams."
Solinsky says the plan he created utilized the same strategy as one he used to move people out of the Kettle Valley area.
"We basically made Chute Lake Road and Lakeshore Road a two lane road out – nobody went in until we could get a majority of the people out.
It was the same with Highway 97 and Glenmore. We are pretty limited in this valley because you really have one road to get you out of town."
All of this had to be done while being cognizant of the old floating bridge.
"At one point during the fire the bridge guy was actually going to lift the bridge to let a sailboat go through. And you know as well as I do when the bridge goes up it doesn't always come down so we would have been stuck."
He says there was also the matter of where people would go once they left.
He remembered at the time many evacuees had already gone to Vernon which was also dealing with someone who had been setting fires in the Silver Star region.
Solinsky recalls people in 2003, with very few exceptions, were very cooperative during the course of the evacuations.
He says a lot of that had to do with the fact you could see the fire coming - and coming quickly.
He recalled the story of one homeowner in the Rimrock area.
"We had a guy that refused to leave. I went down to talk to him and he said I'm not leaving. It's my house. I took some information from him and gave him my card," says Solinsky.
"If you change your mind let me know I told him. About 10 or 15 minutes later he called me and said I'm leaving. I ask him why and he said I can see the fire and I'm out of here."
As for the security part of the job, Solinsky says three or four people were arrested, most of those residents who had crossed through the line to get to their property.
He says the worst of people were those who came from out of town and victimized residents who had already been victimized.
"We didn't have any looting (in homes) in 2003. But people who had their lifelong belongings in their car – these (scumbags) came up from the Lower Mainland and were ripping off their cars," says Solinsky.
They were arrested.
"I had the investigators make notations on their file that these were people that were evacuated. It wasn't just a hotel parking lot. These people were totally taken advantage of," says Solinsky.
"I don't know what happened. We hope the justice system would give them more of a sentence because of the circumstances and that's why we noted it."
Solinsky says the preparation book is updated on a yearly basis but, as for the evacuation plan itself, he says he hasn't looked at it since.
"I went through my personal notes a few weeks ago. You learn from all of these things., There were some good things that happened."
As for another disaster - if one ever hits, Solinsky says he feels he, first responders and the city are better prepared.
After spending about six weeks working both the Barrier and Kelowna fires Solinsky says he will never be able to get away from the smell of smoke.
"I smell smoke all the time still to this day," says Solinsky.
"A lot of people say that. If I am walking from my wife and I smell smoke from a chimney I turn to look to see if there is a fire to this day."
Tomorrow: Life, and retirement on the front lines.
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