Okanagan Mountain Park Fire
Firestorm '03: Hell on the front lines
Aug 21, 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.
Talk to any fire fighter.
To a man they'll tell you there is nothing worse than being told you can't finish fighting the fire you started fighting.
Brian Tutt was no different.
Tutt, who turns 70 tomorrow (Aug. 22) was not able to help fight the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire to the bitter end.
It had nothing to do with illness, injury or fatigue. Age and 'the rules' caught up with him.
Tutt turned 60 the day Kelowna lost nearly 230 homes in the Upper Mission due to the fire. Regulations stated once you hit 60, you must retire at the end of that month.
For Tutt, that was Aug. 31, 2003.
"I went home that day from work and that was it. I was finished even though the fire was still burning. That wasn't easy. That was tough," an emotional Brian Tutt recalled 10 years later.
"I was told I had to go home. I couldn't stay and help put the fire out. It took a few days and then I realized they could have it - I've done my share."
Tutt was a Lieutenant with the Kelowna Fire Department in 2003 stationed at the Mission Fire Hall - the hall closest to all the action.
"Personally I didn't think it was going to get to the city until it had been going for several days. Then we could see it was probably going to come unless the winds changed."
The winds didn't change. Every afternoon about 2:30 the fire would blow up and go until 5 or 6 p.m. before calming down.
"It would jump as much as 10 miles in a day. We knew it was coming."
Tutt had been fighting fires for 25 years and, as a city firefighter mostly battled structure fires, however, he had seen his share of bush fires.
Nothing he says compared to what firefighters saw during the summer of 2003.
"I've been to a lot of structure fires but you usually had enough manpower that you could overwhelm the fire and not have the fire overwhelm you like this one did."
Tutt was in charge of a crew of fire fighters on call at the Mission Fire Hall the day of Aug. 22.
He says they got the call about 2:30 that afternoon - all available fire fighters needed to respond to the Upper Mission.
The winds had picked up. He was told to go to Trumpeter Road.
"We were on Trumpeter to set up a line and when the fire came through there, I heard my driver yell Holy Christ – and when I look around there were sparks and garbage cans and everything out of the yards going straight across the road horizontal.," recalls Tutt.
"I said we are going to have to get out of here because we are not going to stop that. We went to the end of the street to re-evaluate what we are going to do. By the time we turned around half the homes on that street were on fire."
At that point Tutt said he determined there was nothing they could do and pulled up stakes for Kettle Valley.
"When we got to Kettle Valley almost every yard in there was on fire."
We went from hydrant to hydrant to hydrant and just tied hoses directly onto the hydrant, put nozzles on the end and wet down all the yards, shut them off and left them laying there and carried on to the next one."
He says they would come back, see hot spots beginning to smoke and would start the process again.
"We prevented most of that area from burning down."
As a structural fire fighter Tutt says it was frustrating to watch as houses burned down around him but aid once a home caught fire there was no way of saving it.
They had to move on and try and save those that had not caught fire.
"The fire was so huge the water we had wasn't going to touch it. They had been working on it with bombers and helicopters. If it decided to blow it just blew past their fire guards and kept on going," says Tutt.
"The width of some of those power lines up there is very wide and it meant nothing to that fire. They just blew across the power line and kept on going."
While the fire was seemingly all around them, Tutt says his crew was fortunate to be in Kettle Valley where there was always a way out.
If they felt trapped they would just work until the fire moved along.
Other crews were not as fortunate.
"Some of the guys were (trapped). There was so much fire going on in Okaview and Viewcrest because it was concentrated with housing and old timber," says Tutt.
"They had to put their faces down on the lawn and try and breathe through the grass to get some air that was breathable."
While many homes were lost, many, many more were saved due to the dedicated work of fire fighters like Tutt and his crew, forestry fire fighters and the Canadian military.
Tomorrow, Kelowna's worst night
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