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51 days of fire that gripped the Central Okanagan: A look back at the Grouse Complex

The Grouse Complex of wildfires lasted 51 days
The Grouse Complex of wildfires that hit the Central Okanagan in August and September made devastating impacts to the community. (BC Wildfire Service) The Grouse Complex of wildfires that hit the Central Okanagan in August and September made devastating impacts to the community. (BC Wildfire Service)

Despite starting almost exactly 20 years to the day after the Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire, no one batted an eye when the McDougall Creek wildfire was first reported.

That’s because, while smoke could be seen on the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 15, a large plume to the south was worrying residents. The Crater Creek wildfire in Keremeos had exponentially increased in size and smoke was visible across the Okanagan.

This smoke consumed the minds of those in West Kelowna, meanwhile, a little puff was growing to the northwest of West Kelowna, this wildfire was only estimated to be half a hectare in size.

Windy conditions and 38 C temperatures caused the McDougall Creek blaze to grow the next day (Wednesday, Aug. 16) to 64 hectares. By 11:30 p.m. that night, 4,800 properties were put on evacuation alert in West Kelowna, as a precaution.

Despite that and because wildfires are becoming all too common in southwest B.C., life in the Central Okanagan remained somewhat normal… until that Thursday afternoon. The fire began to spread more rapidly, and at 7:45 p.m., it could be seen from Kelowna as it crested the mountaintops.

As the night went on, the fire rapidly moved east toward Okanagan Lake, forcing evacuation orders, and leaving some residents to rush from their homes with little to no notice. As many West Kelowna residents fled from the flames seeking help for the night, across the lake Kelowians watched the fire candle in the trees above Westside Road when heavy winds picked up and embers were carried across the water to the Glenmore/McKinley Landing neighbourhood around 10 p.m., sparking a second wildfire.

BC Wildfire Service quickly responded to the Walroy Lake blaze as it crept close to homes, causing people to evacuate immediately. Some people tucked their kids into bed for the night, thinking the lake could act as a guard, thinking they were safe. They quickly had to think again.

As Thursday night turned into the early hours of Friday morning, the evolving situation quickly became a blur for many people. Earlier in the summer, a wildfire sparked on Knox Mountain during Canada Day celebrations causing evacuation orders and alerts, now just over a month later these same residents were once again facing the same challenge. Others in the community were experiencing this natural disaster for the first time.

By Friday morning, the McDougall Creek wildfire had exploded to 6,800 hectares in size and was highly visible around the Central Okanagan.

As both fires grew and smoke blanketed the sky, a third blaze, the Clarke Creek wildfire started in Lake Country.

Chaos ensued throughout Friday (Aug. 18) and Highway 97 was packed with vehicles trying to leave the area, while others were trying to get to provincial emergency support services that were quickly being put together. More evacuation alerts and orders were put in effect throughout the day as the fires spread and recreational services were also suspended and closed. Included in the road closures were Westside Road and Glenmore Road. A state of emergency was declared as nearly 30,000 residents were put on an evacuation notice in 24 hours.

By 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 18, the McDougall Creek blaze was now 10,500 hectares. By the night’s end, the Walroy Lake fire was 580 hectares as Clarke Creek grew to 174 hectares.

All three wildfires continued to grow as the streets of Kelowna became an eerie sight, lacking cars, people, and the usual Friday nightlife. The fires continued to rage on, causing many road closures, and destroying trees, powerlines, and properties. Fire crews fought on the front lines, with some not sleeping for more than 24 hours.

On Saturday night, Aug. 20, the BC Wildfire Service designated the three blazes as the Grouse Complex. Additionally, the province put temporary travel restrictions in place.

For days, the Central Okanagan was covered in smoke and life was in limbo for many as they didn’t know what had happened to their homes. Answers were scattered as there wasn’t access to the information people wanted, yet the Central Okanagan Emergency Operations held daily updates with what was known. Many fire crews came from all over British Columbia and across Canada to help battle the blaze so the crews working tirelessly could finally take breaks.

Within a few days, emergency operations were able to confirm structures had been lost or damaged, confirming 58 structures were affected on Aug. 21. By this time, the Grouse Complex was one of the biggest stories across the country, gaining national attention. A week after the fire ignited, B.C. Premier David Eby toured areas of the Central Okanagan that were devastated by the wildfires.

“The devastation for families who have lost everything, homes burned to the ground, will be some time recovering, for community members and so many affected individuals,” the premier said in a press conference in West Kelowna on Tuesday, Aug. 22. “What is also evident, even if we get to a couple hundred homes, is the heroic efforts of firefighting crews.”

It was also announced the temporary travel restrictions were rescinded after only two days.

As that week went on, additional fire crews came from other countries like Mexico and South Africa to help battle the fires while emergency operations launched an online tool for evacuated residents to see whether their structures had been damaged or not. The number of destroyed or damaged structures continued to rise to more than 150, including Okanagan Lake Resort, which entirely burnt down.

On Thursday, Aug. 24, some people could breathe the first sigh of relief as BC Wildfire Service announced the Walroy Lake wildfire in Kelowna and Clarke Creek wildfire in Lake Country were being held, meaning the fire was unlikely to spread beyond the predetermined boundaries.

“This is really exciting news. I can tell you at the fire hall the mood is very, very high and very, very positive this morning,” Kelowna Fire Chief Travis Whiting said in the Aug. 24th update. “It’s been our goal for the last seven days to get all our residents home safely, and we couldn’t be more excited to see this happen today…That’s a big deal.”

The Walroy Lake wildfire reached 733 hectares in size while the Clarke Creek blaze was 372.6 hectares in total.

During the Aug. 24 update, West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund talked about the community support they felt as all the firefighters battled the blazes.

“It is the fuel that keeps us all going,” said Brolund. “Being able to read your comments and the cards that you’ve dropped off and see the signs outside the fire hall is what fuels my men and women, as well as all of the men and women who are involved, so I want to thank you for that.”

Over those next few days, residents close to those two fires were able to return home as evacuation orders and alerts were lifted and Glenmore Road also reopened. Four structures were lost in Kelowna along Glenmore Road, just north of John Hindle Road, in the same area of the Glenmore Landfill, which also suffered fire damage. Three structures were destroyed in Lake Country.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the West Kelowna Fire Department on Aug. 25, to talk about the devastation of the wildfires.

“This has been an extraordinarily difficult summer for so many Canadians from coast to coast to coast as communities have been hit with wildfires, extreme weather events on top of all the other economic events people are facing,” Trudeau said at the press conference.

Later that same day, some Westbank residents were also able to start to return home as well.

Six days later, on Thursday, Aug. 31, the Walroy Lake and Clarke Creek wildfires were officially under control, no longer causing a threat to Kelowna and Lake Country.

As fire crews continued to battle the blaze across the lake for the next couple of weeks, West Kelowna residents were slowly able to return home bit by bit, depending on the McDougall Creek wildfire’s position and behaviour. During that time, crews battled the fire and structure crews continued to remain in place in case fire activity increased.

As more places became accessible, it became known that the McDougall Creek wildfire took out 426 BC Hydro power poles, forcing more than 1,200 residents to lose power. On top of the poles, the fire took out 27 kilometres of power lines and 66 other pieces of BC Hydro equipment.

In mid-September, the West Kelowna blaze continued to be considered out of control despite low fire activity. Because of this, the community began to think the wildfire season was done for the year. But then on Sept. 16, a new wildfire sparked in Peachland.

The human-caused Glen Lake wildfire ignited and because of its proximity to McDougall Creek, the blaze was added to the Grouse Complex. As the West Kelowna fire was experiencing low activity, many firefighters were moved to Peachland to fight the new blaze.

Because of warm weather conditions and strong winds, the blaze quickly grew to 763 hectares within three days, causing evacuation orders and alerts in Peachland.

As crews battled the Central Okanagan’s newest blaze, the McDougall Creek wildfire was finally determined to being held on Thursday, Sept. 21. It was out of control for 37 days.

Five days later, as cooler-than-normal temperatures came to town, the Glen Lake wildfire was also held, sitting at 1,116.2 hectares. On the same day, all remaining evacuation alerts and orders were lifted for the McDougall Creek wildfire.

Because these two fires were now being held, Central Okanagan Emergency Operations rescinded the local state of emergency put in place because of the Grouse Complex.

Finally, on Oct. 5, McDougall Creek was determined to be under control. In total, it was 13,970.4 hectares in size.

Glen Lake was also considered under control the next day.

Over the month and a half the Grouse Complex took over the Central Okanagan, so many incredible and emotional stories came out as well as bringing up many memories of 20 years ago. Over the four fires, 189 structures were damaged or destroyed, including firefighters who lost their homes.

Not many people would ever think the fire would cross Okanagan Lake causing two more large blazes to ignite, but it did. Not many people experience stopping their lives in order to save their family or their home - they did. While wildfires happen every single year, the 2023 Grouse Complex is something the Central Okanagan hasn’t seen in years and something residents hope they don’t have to experience again for a long time.

Jordy Cunningham

About the Author: Jordy Cunningham

Hailing from Ladner, B.C., I have been passionate about sports, especially baseball, since I was young. In 2018, I graduated from Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops with a Bachelor of Journalism degree
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