Okanagan Mountain Park Fire
Firestorm '03: Time to re-build
Aug 23, 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.
There are a lot of numbers when it comes to the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire.
Sixty-six (number of out of town fire departments who assisted on the fire lines), 25,600 (hectares burned), 16 (number of historic Myra Canyon trestles burned), 33,050 (people evacuated).
The number that means the most - 238.
That's the number of homes lost.
That's the number that means the most to the people who lost the most.
That's about 1,000 people told they would have to re-build their homes and their lives - start all over again.
Some left town and picked up the pieces elsewhere - some found another area of town to live, unable to live with the memories or just looking to start anew somewhere else.
Others, like Rick Maddison and Joni Metherell chose to stay and re-build their home on Lark Street which is now just down the street from the newly constructed Chute Lake Elementary School.
What attracted me to Rick and Joni was an interview Rick had done with Andy and TJ at SILK-FM just after learning their house was gone.
It was something that stuck with me all these years.
"Truth be told I didn't feel like crying on air because I knew people were listening to the after affects," Recalls Maddison.
"TJ was a mess in the control room but I kept thinking if I allow myself to get going I could break down. I was being partially honest when I said I didn't like the brown tile in the kitchen anyway.”
Maddison says he was reminded about that a week or so ago by a lady who thought it was neat he could crack a joke at that time.
"It was different because there was so much doom and gloom. It was such a dark time."
Maddison and Metherell had been in their house on Lark Street about two years before lightning struck at Squally Point Aug. 16.
Three days later they were put on evacuation alert, five days later they were told to get out.
But, in the early days, neither believed they were in danger, although Rick did get an uneasy feeling of dread when the lightning first struck.
"It seemed so far away and I couldn't have imagined the resources couldn't have been marshalled to put it out," says Metherell.
"It felt like they were getting what they needed to put it out. It seemed like there was so much between Rattlesnake Island and here."
For her it was Tuesday when reality set in.
"It was when they set up the helicopter bucketing station at the end of our street. It was just relentless helicopter traffic," says Metherell.
"You couldn't see across the street the smoke was so bad. That was probably the Tuesday. That's when I started to get worried and started packing stuff."
Still Rick felt safe.
"You are on alert which meant really nothing because you continued to go about your daily business. Joni kept packing our vehicles and I kept unpacking them because I thought Kettle Valley would burn before we did," says Maddison.
The final knock on the door came about 7 p.m. on Aug. 21. The frantic final knock about 20 minutes later telling them to get out immediately.
While they got out safely, Rick still didn't think there was much to worry about.
"For me, even though I was packing up the house I didn't believe it was going to burn. There was a glow on the hill but I felt, come on, whose house is going to burn – honestly," says Maddison.
"Some of the houses on the hill were going to burn but it would have to go across the road and we had the army, Mars Bombers. It seemed fantastic to me."
They went to a rental property in East Kelowna that, ironically was put on evacuation order two days later. They ended up with friends in Magic Estates.
By Friday night both were dreading the worst.
"I did. I felt pretty strongly it was gone," says Metherell.
"I was changing my tune when we tried phoning the house to try and get some indication and we kept getting a busy signal," added Maddison.
By Saturday, Joni says a friend who had been up in a helicopter and knew where approximately their house was relayed a message that the house was gone.
The official word came Sunday afternoon during a meeting of residents in the affected area at Trinity Baptist Church.
"(It was) Pretty glum. People were pretty tense. On the other hand it was nice to see our neighbours and people in the neighbourhood," remembers Metherell.
"People were anxious and nervous wanting to know what the answer was."
For Joni, the most emotional part was when Fire Chief Gerry Zimmermann and the official party walked on stage and received a standing ovation for people who would soon learn the were homeless.
"I wasn't upset about the house but seeing these people that had tried so hard and were clearly invested. That was hard. We didn't know Ron Mattiussi at the time but his emotion was so obvious."
Ironically, the man who built their house two years previously was also at that meeting - his house had burned down as well.
"I said wow, your house is gone too – could you build our house," says Maddison.
"He said I'll put you on the list. He was very nice about it after hearing the devastating news."
Ten years later, except for a burnt forest on the hillside, you wouldn't know a fire had ripped through much of the neighbourhood around Lark Street.
The area has been built back up again, in fact, there are more homes now than there were before.
"Behind us used to be forest. After the fire they brought sewer up allowing the whole area to be developed," says Metherell.
The neighbourhood is, understandably, closer together now than they ever were.
Part of that was due to a neighbourhood fence building party.
Rick says neighbours decided on a specific type of fence and everybody pitched in.
They would go from house to house building the fence as a group.
"We were a pretty fast and a good work crew but we spent hours and hours together building these fences and it was so incredibly emotional but it was also great to spend that time together and re-build together. Friends For Life," says Maddison.
One the one year anniversary the neighbourhood got together and had a picnic in the park across the street from their homes.
Today, 10 years and two children later, they feel safe and secure in their home.
"The houses are so different. We don't have the forest behind us anymore and there's not the fuel load. We don't have cedar shakes," says Metherell.
Still, there are some anxious moments.
"I get a little wierded out when there are helicopters. Morning and smelt smoke out at Chute Lake. That always gives me a racy heart," admits Metherell.
"I am still a little leery when I hear a fire truck and I watch the lake levels," says Maddison.
"Being a parent you have to pick up and move on. You can't dwell. For my kids to see me depressed about a home that has burned down doesn't serve them very well."
Like the owners of 237 other homes - they're moving on the best they can.
Tomorrow: 13 minutes of destruction, heartache and thanks.
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