Recovery from the Firestorm

On August 16th, 2003, lightning strikes in the semi-arid, tinder-dry Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park near the south end of Kelowna started a forest fire. Forest fires are not unusual in the hot summer; there had been other fires in the valley for several weeks before. People watched the fire and expected that it would be put out shortly, as is usually the case. Within days, however, the wind had changed and the fire moved toward the city. The smell was overwhelming, the trees candled, smoke and embers darkened the day, and flames lit up the sky at night.

What had been a mere forest fire grew into a firestorm like no one had ever seen before. Firefighters and army units from across Canada rushed to Kelowna to help. The city set up reception centres and issued evacuation orders for the 30,000 residents living in the path of the fire. They fled their homes, their most prized personal possessions in hand, leaving everything else behind. Road checks prevented residents from returning to their homes in the evacuation zones except during designated times. A cheese farm which had just acquired 100 new goats the day before, put out a call for help to save the animals; people with horse trailers arrived to carry them out. Entire subdivisions were levelled; homes blew up from gases in the heat, houses were reduced to rubble. Fire fighters trapped high up the hill had nowhere to go and, with the fire moving above their heads, starting new fires behind them, and flaming pinecones firing down on them, they had no air to breath. Then, the wind changed, the dried pinecones, needles and trees feeding the fire were exhausted, and the fire was forced uphill and away. Once the smoke lifted, over 270 homes had been destroyed, as were vineyards and buildings at the St. Hubertus Winery, and many of the historic wooden Kettle Valley Railway trestles in Myra Canyon above the city. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured or killed.

My cousins, who live on a five-acre property near Okanagan Mountain Park, were called back to Kelowna from a fishing trip when the fire began. They immediately had 85 trees around their house cut down, much to the horror of their neighbours. The woodcutters removed and mulched all branches, needles and pinecones which could fuel the fire and left the denuded tree trunks on the ground for later removal. My cousins also placed water sprinklers on their roof to saturate the fallen needles and pinecones which could fuel a fire. When the fire swept through their area, the house below them and the house above them were burnt to the ground, their contents obliterated. In their area, 16 out of 32 houses were lost. My cousins’ home remained largely unscathed.

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There was a huge outpouring of support for Kelowna from across the country. The houses have been rebuilt, the cheese farm re-established, the vineyards replanted, the somewhat smoky wine in their cellars saved. The Myra Canyon trestles have been restored. Many of the burnt trees were felled and salvaged for lumber, carted away like my cousins’ tree trunks. Other stressed trees were later killed by the pine beetle and harvested for their blue colours. The rest have been left to fall when they will. What had been a forest at the edge of the city is now returning to the natural cycle of wild flowers, smaller plants, bushes and trees which will eventually replace it. This new growth provides ample feed for the deer, elk, sheep, goats, marmots, and voles which now thrive where before they were scarce. My cousins now have an expansive view of the lake where before they had only “a keyhole” cut in the trees. They have replanted their property with a mixture of trees which are growing rapidly. All according to a plan which is sustainable and, hopefully, resistant to any future fires. The conditions which created the firestorm have now changed, but best to be prepared.

***** Thanks to Doug and Cheryl for help with this post. 

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One comment

  1. Linda and Malcolm

    What a great post Marion. The sad part of the fires that we have seen is that in some ways, we are creating our own problems. In recent years, we have become extremely efficient at putting out fires. The bad side of this is that the bush under the trees becomes very dense, to the point that once a fire starts, it is extremely difficult to extinguish. Fires started by lightning were nature’s way of renewal. The Forestry people in eastern BC have done some work on controlled burning.

    The Okanagan area is very dry and the forests are not all that dense, but seeing the pictures of the fires that occurred that year were terrifying. There was just no stopping them.

    The Myra Canyon trestles are just one of the wonderful stories of a community working together. You will remember the year that we rode bikes through that area, and the beauty of the trestles. It was a mere 6 weeks later that most were destroyed by the fire. I remember looking over the side of one trestle and seeing all of the old timbers that had been left there as the trestles were maintained when they were in active use on in the railway. These timbers, soaked with creosote, were ideal fuel for the fire. I remember thinking that if a fire ever reached those timbers, that they would ensure that the trestles would burn as well.

    When the fire was out, the trestles were gone. I was pretty sure that there was no chance that they would be rebuilt. But with help from Sheila Copps, who was the Federal Heritage Minister at the time, plus a lot of time and money from a lot of local people and businesses, the trestles were all rebuilt. It is a great site to see now, and it is encouraging to see just how many people – like us, go to enjoy the area. There are many little bronze placks that show who supported the rebuild.

    The fire was awful, and caused real pain for many people, but it has been great to watch as people have rebuilt and worked together, creating a better community than what was there before the fire…

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