Firestorm: 15 years later

Firefighters are not supposed to cry. They're strong, tough, and run into deadly situations while others run away.

But, when the situation is so overwhelming, so devastating, it's tough on everyone.

It was that way on the evening on Aug. 22, 2003.

Media from around the country gathered for an 11 p.m. news conference at Kelowna's Enterprise Way firehall amid rumours numerous homes had been lost at the height of the Okanagan Mountain Park fire.

"Tonight was probably the roughest night in Kelowna firefighting history," then fire chief Gerry Zimmermann said in a teary, emotional statement.

Years later, those emotions were still evident.

"It was hard to comprehend. We knew houses were popping – they were just exploding," Zimmermann recalled.

"I recall radioing up to Len Moody, who was my commander up there. I asked how many are going. I expected him to say 25 or 30. He said maybe a hundred and probably a heck of a lot more than that."

Zimmermann says his heart sank. He felt helpless.

"It's your job to be in there. It was going through my mind, should I pull everybody out? That wasn't an option, that couldn't be an option," he said, still emotional.

While firefighters tried to battle back a wall of flames, some 20,000 people were scurrying from their homes.

Moody, a fire captain, was in the middle of the fight. He described the scene in the Upper Mission as "a war zone." A Firestorm Category 6.

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

"I feel fortunate no lives were lost," Moody said at the time. "In two instances, firefighters were trapped with flames all around, and through the efforts of their colleagues battled their way out."

Once fires are that big, Zimmermann said you just can't put them out.

"You can steer them somewhat and put out spot fires when they are going through. But, when a wall (of fire) like that 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," he said. "There were a lot of things to this day I don't understand."

Some 15 years later, homes have been rebuilt and lives restored. Where lush forest once stood, saplings have taken root as the forest continues the regeneration process.

But, as was evidenced by the Goode's Creek fire, which started in late July, there is still enough forest to move a fire along, although maybe not to the degree of 2003.

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