West Kelowna's city manager says officials considered "taking down homes" to build a fire break when the McDougall Creek wildfire was bearing down on the community.
Chief administrative officer Paul Gipps spoke at a panel on wildfire preparedness Tuesday at the Union of BC Municipalities convention in Vancouver.
He spoke about the importance of partnerships, planning ahead for fire season and his experiences as the McDougall Creek blaze, fuelled by strong winds and dry conditions, grew rapidly and pushed into residential neighbourhoods.
The wildfire is the most destructive event in the modern history of West Kelowna.
“When I woke up on Thursday morning, Aug. 17, I didn’t expect it to be a day I remember as well as I do,” Gipps said.
He said at about noon that day, he was called into the Emergency Operations Centre. Within 12 hours, the community was surrounded by fire.
“It was something to be seen,” Gipps said.
That night was described by Jason Brolund, West Kelowna fire chief, as a fire chief’s worst nightmare.
Gipps said he went home at about 2 a.m. Friday and drove by city hall, where it looked as if the fire was coming into the parking lot.
“We had a tough decision to think about that night, whether or not we were going to take some very aggressive action to stop it. …We considered taking down homes, a lot of homes, to create a fire break,” Gipps said.
He said he decided to sleep on it, and when he woke up the next morning, the situation had changed. At that point, a number of fires had started across Lake Okanagan due to embers from the McDougall Creek blaze.
Gipps said because of heavy smoke, airplanes were grounded and they had to rely on firefighters on the ground. He did not elaborate further on the shelved plan to remove homes to make way for a fire guard.
He thanked BC Wildfire Service and other communities for sending fire departments to West Kelowna’s aid.
“Without that, we’d be telling a much different story today,” Gipps said.
About 190 homes were lost due to the McDougall Creek wildfire, but no lives were lost.
Gipps said working in a regional EOC was key to getting through a difficult time and being able to sustain staff members, noting the EOC is still active due to the Glen Lake wildfire near Peachland. The EOC involves the District of Peachland, the Westbank First Nation, the City of Kelowna, the Regional District of Central Okanagan.
“You need a big family to get through this,” he said.
Gipps also encouraged municipalities to build relationships with BC Wildfire Service in advance of an emergency.
He said it’s also important to plan for the period of time after the fire settles down, when a community might have potentially thousands of evacuees to manage and assist.
“Emergency Support Services is a provincial responsibility, but we’ve got to dig in there more and work this out better. It’s key,” Gipps said.
“What do you do with the people who have evacuated? You’ve got them all, they’re safe, but the processing time — there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on that.”
He also encouraged municipalities to practice for emergencies and have realistic plans in place, and do as much fire mitigation in interface areas as possible.
“We’re going to work closely again with our partners. We’re going to practice. And we’re going to be better prepared — because it’s not going to stop.”