In August 2003, my cousins Doug and Cheryl Fraser were on a fishing trip to Tofino on Vancouver Island when they received an emergency call to return home to Kelowna right away. Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park, a tinderbox of old timber and dried duff which had accumulated for decades, was on fire. The Park sits to the west of their property which was in an area subject to an evacuation alert. Officials watched the progress of the fire which was dependent on the speed and direction of the wind.
Doug and Cheryl, attracted to the Rimrock area by the thick forest on their five-acre property and the view over Okanagan Lake, completed construction of their dream house two years before. Now they faced a desperate scramble to save their home. Doug consulted local fire officials who advised him to move anything flammable away from the house. The woodpile had to go. Doug called in professional woodsmen who felled fifteen trees which were close to the house, cut off all their branches, got rid of the leaves and the pine needles, mulched them, and hauled them away. The tree trunks were left lying on the ground, denuded of all readily flammable vegetation. They put three sprinklers on the roof, and used hoses to water down the cedar soffits.
Their neighbours thought they were crazy, but the plan paid off. One week after the evacuation notice was posted, the fire swept through Rimrock. When Cheryl and Doug returned to their house after the fire, they found the house below in rubble, and the house above razed to the ground. Of thirty houses in the area, fifteen were totally destroyed. Some the fire burned; others blew up when air in the modern-insulated, air-tight homes heated so rapidly that the houses exploded. The forest of trees on their property was charred, black and standing stark. The tallest of the trees, with a thick cambium layer, survived the fire although their trunks were singed close to the ground. Travelling fast through the property, the fire apparently jumped the structure with its soaking roof and no dry plants around to fuel the flames. Their house remained intact, with only a couple of window seals broken, a few spark burns on the roof, and some shingles that had become brittle and needed to be replaced.
After the fire, professional foresters removed five logging truckloads of marketable fir trees from the property. In all: 125 dead trees taken to the local mill where the wood was made into lumber. Within months, Doug and Cheryl started replanting. A local nursery gave everyone in the area a pallet of ponderosa pine seedlings, a total of 100 baby trees each. Doug and his brother Don dug up another 250 two- to three-foot fir, pine and larch trees which were growing under power lines up and down the valley. The brothers planted the young trees in sites across the five acres, strategically placed with open spaces nearby. To the east, is a standing stump from a tree that did not survive. Doug pulled it upright and keeps it for the birds.
It has been another season of forest fires in British Columbia. The worst ever, with hundreds of people evacuated, and fire fighters brought in from across the continent. The sky remains smoky, apparently from forest fires burning in Washington State. British Columbia is an economy based on the forest industry. Fires occur naturally and can be useful to clean out the forests and renew the resource. Out of control, they can bring devastation and disaster. My cousin’s experience in Kelowna is proof, however, that, from all the horror of that 2003 cataclysm, a renaissance has come.
***** With great thanks to Doug and Cheryl Fraser for sharing their story. *****
Kelowna, with a city population of 122,000 and a regional population of nearly 180,000, is located north-east of Okanagan Lake in the southern interior of British Columbia. It is the third largest metropolitan area in the province and the largest in the interior, the home of Okanagan College with over 5,000 students, and of the University of British Columbia Okanagan with over 8,000 students. The regional hospital includes a cancer centre and a newly opened cardiac wing. The new International Airport has direct flights to many cities in eastern Canada and the United States.
Kelowna thrives on year-round tourism: boating, golfing, fishing, hiking and biking in the summer; alpine and cross-country skiing in the winter. Vineyards have been planted throughout the area and a host of wineries produce world-class wines. Now known as the Napa Valley of Canada, many wineries welcome visitors to wine tastings and gourmet restaurants offering splendid views over the lake. At the heart of one of the most prolific fruit-growing regions in the province, it is the home of SunRype, the popular manufacturer of fruit bars and juices. Also Whitewater Composites, which has become the world’s largest supplier of fibreglass attractions for the water park and theme park industry.
With a mild, dry climate, panoramic views of the water, and ready access to the out-of-doors, retirees from across western Canada have settled in Kelowna, making it one of the fastest growing cities on the continent. The snow fall which brought Kelowna into the headlines a few weeks ago was a 40-year novelty. In the valley, the temperatures have gone up and down since, and the snow has greatly dissipated. In the mountains above the valley, the snow remains crisp, clean, deep on the ground, and inviting.
My cousins came to Kelowna from the coast years ago. On Thursday, Don and Jan took me along to share one of their favourite winter pastimes. About a half hour from home, we are on a remote mountain path high above the valley, snowshoeing and skiing along a trail through a heavy forest. The trees are laden with snow. There are fresh tracks of moose, rabbits and deer in the snow, and torn tufts of deer hair, evidence of an animal felled by a predator.
Eventually we reach a favourite spot where they can build a fire and have a winter wiener roast in the woods. Skilled outdoorspeople, they dig a three-foot hole near a fallen tree where I can sit. (Note that the big city photographer sits because she has no practical skills to give). Don and Jan gather dead branches from nearby willow trees, cut them up into manageable lengths, pile the branches into the hole, light their homemade firelighters (cardboard strips dipped in melted candle wax), and set ablaze a fire. It warms us and cooks our wieners. With hot chocolate from a thermos, mandarin oranges, homemade whole-wheat buns and all the trimmings, hot dogs never tasted so good. What a wonderful way to spend a winter afternoon. In case you are wondering, such open fires are permitted in the woods only in the winter. Come summer, strict fire regulations apply.