Remembering Kelowna’s Firestorm

Today marks the 14th anniversary of the start of the Okanagan Mountain Park Wildfire.

As the province battles through one of its worst forest fire seasons in recent memory, today marks the 14th anniversary of a fire that left an indelible mark on Kelowna.

On Aug. 16, 2003, the Okanagan Mountain Park Wildfire was sparked by lightening near Rattlesnake Island, halfway between Kelowna and Penticton on the east side of Okanagan Lake. At first it did not seem like to a big deal to many.

But, thanks to the incredibly dry summer the area was experiencing at the time, and the strong winds that kicked up and pushed the flames north and east towards Kelowna’s southern boundary, the fire seemed to take on a life of its own. It jumped retardant lines laid down to contain it, it burned tall majestic trees like matchsticks and it marched relentlessly towards the city, burning everything in its path.

As it entered the city, it prompted a firefighting and evacuation effort rarely seen before at the municipal level in this country.

The city, unlike many other communities in B.C. at the time, had finely-tuned emergency plan in place and it immediately went into operation. Preparations for a mass evacuation of nearly 30,000 people shifted into high gear, as all hell broke loose.

In the Capital News, reporters and editors were stopped in their tracks when we heard over the scanner that city firefighters were facing a moving wall of flame 100 feet tall in one south Mission neighbourhood. The firefighting effort that followed— by city firefighters and crews from other communities in the valley, throughout province and across the country—is now the stuff of legend around here.

Despite the loss of 239 homes, the then-largest civilian evacuation in Canada since the Second World War—and repeated touch-and-go scenarios where firefighters literally put their lives on the line to save their city, the advance of the fire was relentless.

It was eventually wrestled into submission but not before it left a swath of charred remains—homes, memories and even some of the the historic trestles of the Kettle Valley Railroad in Myra Canyon.

But through it all, it was the human element that shone through, brighter than any flame the fire could produce. With a constant flow of information coming from the Emergency Operations Centre and the fire department, the public mood remained surprisingly calm in the face of, what was for for some, devastation.

The fire changed Kelowna. Not only did it thrust the city into the national spotlight, it also showed its resiliency to the world.

Since then, homes have been rebuilt, people have got on with their lives and there have been devastating fires elsewhere. But in Kelowna, the memory of that fateful time in the summer of 2003 remains.

In the history of any city, certain events define the community—for good and bad.

In the case of the Okanagan Mountain Park Wildfire, a massive catastrophe brought out the best in many. Neighbours helped neighbours, residents supported emergency crews and everyone tried their best to get each other through the most trying, and terrifying, of times.

It’s fair to say that Kelowna, despite the devastation it endured in 2003, came out stronger in the end.

Alistair Waters is the assistant editor of the Capital News.