Wildfire experiences shared with firefighters

Firefighters from Canada and the U.S. gather in Kelowna this week to exchange experiences about fighting and preventing wildfire.

During the 2003 Kelowna wildfire, a group of firefighters trapped in Kettle Valley were surrounded by 400 foot high flames, took shelter under fire trucks, and called home from their cell phones to say goodbye to their families.

“They couldn’t get out,” recalled former Kelowna fire chief and current city councillor Gerry Zimmermann as he welcomed more than 200 colleagues from around North America to the three-day Western Wildfire Conference in Kelowna Thursday morning.

But, everyone survived the Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire, even though 30,000 people were evacuated, 239 homes were lost in two nights and 60,000 acres were burned across the south slopes, 10 years ago this summer.

“We learned a lot. We learned how to notify people in a compassionate way they had lost their home and their neighbourhood and how to deal with farmers who had to get back into evacuated areas to harvest crops or lose them,” he told delegates.

He recalled getting a call from one of his firefighters on the night that 224 homes were lost that people were trapped and they were losing the fire and they may lose people. Difficult decisions had to be made in five minutes that would take the government six years to make, he said.

He remembered talking to one of his chiefs, who was trapped in the midst of the flames, and he said “we’re not trapped; there’s just no place we can go right now.”

Zimmermann, who retired two years after that fire, said it was having a regional plan that ‘saved our butts,’ because everyone pulled together and a trust existed.

He said some people felt that was Kelowna’s best hour, because of the way everyone pulled together.

“We had a five minute rule. If I knew something, within five minutes everyone else would too. We didn’t keep secrets. The media was our biggest ally. Despite being taught not to tell the media anything, we took them in in buses to the areas that had burned so they could get the news out,” he recalled.

“When three of us met with 2,000 people in a church afterwards, to tell them that whole neighbourhoods were gone, we got a standing ovation. We wouldn’t have had that without the media keeping people informed,” he noted.

Kelowna deputy fire chief Jason Brolund told delegates he was one of those trapped in Kettle Valley that night, while he was a volunteer firefighter with a small department in the neighbouring community of Peachland.

He remembered hearing the storm that resulted in the fire starting with a lightning strike in the park Aug. 16 and he watched from across the lake as windy conditions blew it up into an intense fire with spotting far ahead of the main fire.

At night, he said it looked like a million campfires in the park across the lake.

He called Aug. 23 Black Friday when fire crews were working in the neighbourhoods of Mission fighting the fire house to house, while forestry crews worked overhead scooping water out of swimming pools to put out house fires from above.

“The whole community had a front row seat. There were a million incredible stories from it,” he said.

In the end there were 138 fire departments who came to Kelowna to help out so the logistics of looking after everyone became an administrative task alone, he said.

Then, on July 18, 2009, in West Kelowna, the hills above Gorman Brothers Lumber were filled with flames, and wild winds blew them right across a major highway. Cars lined up to get out of the neighbourhood, and several homes were lost again.

Then, on Sept. 9, 2012, just when firefighters were beginning to relax because they’d got through a summer without incident, 1,500 people had to be evacuated from Peachland when the Trepanier fire blew into town.

In the end, only two homes were lost in Peachland.

A coordinated regional plan is credited with helping to prevent loss of life and more structural losses, but he too, said they have a great relationship with the media, as well as some great mapping and technology now.

During the Trepanier fire, he said they had 80,000 hits in three hours on their emergency program website, which they kept update to help get information out to people.

The wildfire conference continues Friday and Saturday at the Grand Okanagan Resort with workshops, speakers and field trips to talk about what works and what doesn’t and what can be done to prevent wildfires.

The conference was organized by the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association.

jsteeves@kelownacapnews.com