Okanagan Mountain Park Fire
Firestorm '03: Kelowna's finest hour
Aug 25, 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.
On June 18, 1940, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered on of his most famous speeches in the British Parliament.
It was just days after many countries in Europe had fallen and Britain remained standing alone, bracing for attack.
"Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'
While in no way comparing the plight of the British and the world during WWII to that of the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire, it was how people were forced to come together against a massive force that rings true.
While preparing this feature on the 2003 fires and some of the people in front of, and behind the scenes, I asked one common question of each.
"Was the summer of 2003 indeed Kelowna's finest hour?"
Not surprisingly, the answers were similar.
Fire Chief Gerry Zimmermann
"Absolutely. I think without a doubt because we saw the best of everybody. We saw the community come together. There was no anger – there was no finger pointing. Everybody was working together as one cohesive unit to make a bad situation good. It's too bad it takes a disaster to make that happen.
I think people that lived here during that time will always be able to puff their chest out with a sense of pride and say I was a part of that.
I don't think we will ever see that again. I hope we don't because it takes a toll on a lot of people.
We should be really proud of ourselves the way we came out of this."
"Putting it in that context, sure it was. We became a community helping a community. The same as the people of London helped each other to survive.
I think that's what we did here. We helped each other, we comforted each other.
And, everybody worked well together."
RCMP Staff Sgt. Kerry Solinski
"Yes. I think the city and the citizens here can take great pride at how they handled the situation.
How they handled themselves, how they cooperated with one another, how they cooperated with authority.
I have never seen that before. When I was told we had evacuated 30,000 people in a short period of time I was blown away."
Mayor Walter Gray
"As you historically look back I think maybe it was. I could use the word turning point but it wasn't a turning point it was our finest hour.
It's not about the fire chief or it's not about the guy in the water bomber or the guy in the bomber that crashed but survived. Even though citizens today don't realize they were a part of it they were.
Either they were part of it by staying away, they were part of it by volunteering, they were part of it by keeping their store open.
Everybody played a role and everybody was different for three weeks."
Pastor Tim Schroeder
"In many ways, yes. This is a cliche and I don't like cliches. I don't believe hard times like that build character or cause our finest hour. They reveal it.
They reveal what we have. It was under a cover - we really didn't know what we had here. But, when the Firestorm hit it revealed what we had here.
I think it showed the quality of our city.
Everybody says Kelowna is not really a community because we come from everywhere but it revealed we had more depth than that."
Fire fighter Brian Tutt
"Yea, it could have been a lot worse. I don't know of any other disasters around here that came close to that and we didn't lose any lives."
"I saw people who had lost their homes making sandwiches for fire fighters and helping each other out. Maybe I was just not paying attention if there were negative aspects but for me I have a good feeling from that experience.
I came away feeling I really like this city, I like the way people act and in the face of adversity they are pulling together."
"There was a saying that I think matched how I felt which was "adversity introduces a man to himself," or a woman to herself.
When we saw that much adversity and to see people - I know it's a cliche - pull together for each other.
I saw it too. I was trying to help out in the June Springs area and there was bunch of ranchers and people trying to save homes and cattle. They were still fighting it over there even though our home was already gone.
I saw it again over there. I think I phoned the radio station and said these guys need food and bam, food came out of the woodwork.
People just wanted to help but they didn't know how.
You want money we'll give you money, you want shelter we'll give you shelter, you want food we'll give you food, you need a truck, take my truck.
It didn't matter, people were just ready to help."
"Yes I would say that for sure. Everybody had something to offer whether it was materialistic items, time, support, compassion, an open door.
Bonding this community through that was amazing. You could feel human spirit.
That was Kelowna's worst hour and best hour."
In the summer of 2003 everybody did their part, everybody pitched in, we all did something.
Personally, I fell back on my broadcast experience and volunteered at Silk-FM/Castanet. I never left.
After experiencing first hand the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire and speaking with the fine, upstanding men and women who did their part - some putting their life on the line - I think Kelowna can look back with pride.
It was a time of great fear and anxiety but it was also a time of great courage and resolve.
The forest is growing back, homes and neighbourhoods have been re-built but more importantly, a community - a true community - took root.
That's something we can all take pride in.
This is the final installment of our 10 part series looking back on the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire.
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