Okanagan Mountain Park Fire  

Firestorm '03: Aug. 22 'Like a war zone'

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.

Aug. 22, 2003.

"Tonight was probably the roughest night in Kelowna fire fighting history."

Those words from then Fire Chief Gerry Zimmermann resonated through the main fire hall like a baritone's voice at Radio City Music Hall.

Aug. 22 - the night more than 220 houses burned in the Upper Mission.

The night flames danced across the southern hills for everyone to see. The night thick, black and grey smoke engulfed the city.

The night 20,000 were ordered to flee from their homes, turning every north/south artery into a never ending stream of headlights escaping the eerie gloom.

The night Fire Captain Len Moody described the scene as 'a war zone,' a Firestorm category six.

Wind gusts of 60 to 70 km/h were pushing walls of flames estimated at more than 120 metres high up to 100 metres a minute.

It was a night of personal loss and near loss.

"I feel fortunate no lives were lost," stated Moody at the time.

"In two instances firefighters were trapped with flames all around and through the efforts of their colleagues battled their way out."

It is a night that is still emotional for most of those involved - whether fighting the fire on the lines, watching and wondering whether your home was gone or frantically escaping the smoke and flames with as many personal belongings as one could carry.

It was a feeling of total helplessness.

"You can't put these things out. Once they are that big you don't," recalled Fire Chief Gerry Zimmermann.

"You can steer them somewhat and put out spot fires when they are going through - but, when a wall like that (400 feet) is coming at you - I don't care. You can have 1,000 trucks out there you are not going to put it out."

In the aftermath, Zimmermann says there are things that happen, things you see that are unexplainable.

"I saw tempered glass go molten. You see a house that is gone and beside it a plastic shed was untouched," says Zimmermann.

"You see common variety garden chairs that had been disintegrated and all that was left was an imprint of the chair in the grass. There were a lot of things to this day I don't understand."

And, a lot of things Zimmermann and the hundreds upon hundreds of city and forestry fire fighters and army personnel, hope they never, ever see again.

Brian Tutt remembers being so busy trying to save as many houses as he and his crew could to notice how eerie it was that night.

"We didn't really think about it. You run on adrenalin and keep going."

Tutt says it wasn't like anything he had fought before. Certainly not like your standard house fire.

"In Kettle Valley we went from hydrant to hydrant to hydrant and just tied hoses directly onto the hydrant, put nozzles on the end and wet down the yards," says Tutt.

"We shut them off and left them laying there and carried on to the next one."

Among the homes lost, three belonged to fire fighters and several others belonged to RCMP, other first responders and those volunteering to assist the evacuees and anyone else that needed assistance.

About 7 a.m. the following morning mist rose from burned out areas of Okanagan Mountain Park near Rattlesnake Island.

Amazingly it was noted scattered trees and green space remained.

Premier Gordon Campbell came to the interior once things had calmed down a bit and toured the hardest hit areas near Kamloops and Kelowna.

"The fire has been growing in really reckless, volatile and erratic directions. I'd like Mother Nature to help us out here," stated Campbell.

A sentiment echoed by everybody in the Okanagan and the interior.

Looking back, Zimmermann echoes the sentiments of most involved - it was the people, not the fire, he will remember most.

"It wasn't just the fire fighters it was everybody else. There were people manning barricades, there were people bringing in food, there were people keeping the power lines up so we had power to pump stations to keep the water coming," remembers Zimmermann.

"I always said no one person was more important than the other person. Are the people preparing the food to keep the fire fighters going any less valuable than the people putting the fire out. No!"

Tomorrow: Losing everything and moving on.



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