Lessons learned from the Okanagan Mountain Park fire

The 10th anniversary of the devastating 2003 forest fire brought changes to how the city prepares for future emergencies.

The firestorm that engulfed parts of Kelowna  in 2003 changed the city—literally and figuratively.

While the devastation the flames brought—239 homes burned, 27,000 people evacuated, thousands of hectares of land burned and many of the historic Kettle Valley Rail trestles in Myra Canyon destroyed—took their  toll, the lasting impacts of the fire have been more positive.

City and Kelowna Fire Department officials say the region is better prepared today to handle a whole range of emergencies as a result of lessons learned from the harrowing experience of 2003, as well as from other subsequent fires that have occurred since, both here and in other areas of the province.

“There’s no doubt about it , I think we are better prepared,” said Gerry Zimmermann, the man who led the Kelowna Fire Department during the 2003 firestorm.

Retired from the fire department and a Kelowna city councillor today Zimmermann saw first-hand as the fire chief 10 years ago how the city has developed a regional emergency response plan that is the envy of many other communities across B.C.

First developed by him and his fire department staff following a fatal a landslide in the Philpot Road area of the city in the late 1980s, the plan has been constantly tweaked and improved in the years since the Okanagan Mountain Park fire.

“I think if you were to look at the two plans (the one from 2003 and the one now), they would be quite different,” said Zimmermann.

“There were things back then that we didn’t even think of.”

Still, he credits that plan as it was in 2003 in helping Kelowna fight the flames and deal with the challenges of the fire.

And the man in charge of the emergency response plan today, assistant fire chief Jason Brolund, agrees with his former boss.

A young firefighter who found himself trapped in the Kettle Valley area 10 years ago while fighting the Okanagan Mountain Park fire, Brolund is today tasked with making sure the entire Central Okanagan area is prepared for a myriad of potential disasters beyond just fire.

“The principles of the plan can be applied to any emergency,” said Broland.

That’s one of the reasons, he said,why local emergency responders—from area fire departments, police, emergency social services, municipal agencies and other groups, organizations and facilities—regularly participate in both table top and on-the-ground exercises to make sure the plan they never want to face putting into action will run as smoothly as possible when that becomes necessary.

Another veteran of the 2003 firestorm response management team, current Kelowna city manager Ron Mattiussi, said this area now also has experienced people who can draw on those experiences of 2003 to meet the challenges of emergencies today.

From the aforementioned emergency services personnel to city bureaucrats who played such a critical role in disseminating information and keeping the lines of communication open to those fighting the flames, the media and the general public, Mattiussi says the city is much better prepared now than it was a decade ago.

But Mattiussi is also quick to point out that the best planning and most experienced, well-trained people can also see their efforts nullified by something as simple as a change in wind direction during a major fire.

In 2003, it was Mother Nature that stopped a city plan to bulldoze homes south of Barnaby Road in a desperate last-ditch effort to create a large firebreak that officials at the time believed was needed to save the city.

Faced with that gut-wrenching decision, Zimmermann remembers how the decision to proceed with the plan was made quickly and not one person in the room opposed it, even with the knowledge of what it meant and how controversial it would be.

For Mattiussi, it hit home even more so on a personal note. His house was one of hundreds that would have been demolished to create the massive fire break.

“I remember Gerry (Zimmermann) saying to me at the time, if we do this, the city will be in court for 20 years,” said Mattiussi looking back at that critical moment in the city’s history.

Despite that, Mattiussi, acting city manager at the time, was willing to take that risk to stop further destruction. There was a fear the fire could reach Kelowna General Hospital.

He signed the request asking the province for permission to bulldoze the home, but the plan was never implemented. That was because at that moment, the wind changed direction, the skies opened and rain began to fall.

“By the grace of God, luck and Mother Nature, things began to change at that moment,” recalled Zimmermann.

•••

Fighting the Okanagan Mountain Park fire was a group effort on a massive scale. It started with a lightning strike near Rattlesnake Island Aug. 16, and exploded into an urban interface wildfire in the southern neighbourhoods of Kelowna six days later after making its way north and east.

At its height, the fire was fought by hundreds of firefighters, both local and others sent from fire departments across the province to help, along with forest service fire attack crews, helicopter and water bombers, and even the Canadian Army.

It took teamwork that, while evident on the ground, was not always so evident among the officials from the different jurisdictions.

A now legendary exchange between the straight-talking Zimmermann and a top official at the B.C. Fire Commissioner’s office in Victoria resulted in Zimmermann being told to get in line or he could be replaced. Zimmermann’s response: “Go ahead and try.”

But he said when it came to working with the forestry fire crews on the ground, the relationship was very good, as was disemination of information to the public and relationship with the media, credited now as a key to helping the community deal with the fire.

Having seen the total opposite situation caused by the “code of silence” during the devastating fire in Barrier, near Kamloops, just prior to the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire, officials here were determined not to repeat that mistake.

Instead, everything local officials knew here was passed to the public through the media as soon as possible.

Following the destruction of so many homes in the Kettle Valley and Oakaview areas, the city and fire department immediately held a meeting with residents to let them know whose homes were lost and whose were still standing.

Prepared for an onslaught of understandable anger from homeowners who lost their homes, Zimmermann, Mattiussi and other city and firefighting officials who walked into the large church auditorium where the meeting was held just two days after the destruction were shocked by the standing ovation they received.

The support they were given by people who knew they were likely going to receive bad news was overwhelming, recalls Zimmermann.

“I still get goosebumps just thinking about that moment,” he said.

Officials had planned that meeting right down to the seating arrangements—grouping people by street so they would be with others they knew when they got the bad news.

Even Zimmermann’s attire was thought out in advance. He felt it would be better to wear his then familiar red coveralls, not his chief’s uniform, so as not to appear authoritarian and “handing down” news.

“We were making that stuff up on the fly,” he said. “We had never had to do anything like that before.”

Today, he hopes similar catastrophes would be handled in a similar way—making sure as much information is relayed to the public as soon as possible, viewing the media as a partner to get the message out and not an intruding nuisance, and using technology that has advanced greatly in the 10 years since the fire.

According to Mattiussi, the use of mapping was also critical 10 years ago, not only in fighting the fire but also in identifying what was lost and where.

Many of the techniques used to fight the 2003 fire have become best practices recommended by the province.

It needs to be remembered that despite the huge loss of property and the trying conditions—the fire was described by even veteran forestry firefighters as unprecedented—there was no loss of life.

Mattiussi said one of the big lessons learned was the need for more people to be in the emergency operations centre from the start, including local mapping experts.

For Brolund and current Kelowna fire chief Jeff Carlisle, the use of mapping is critical.

But Brolund also points out that any good emergency plan must also include the ability for responders to deal with the emergency without the technology that exists today because in some situations it may not be available.

In 2003, among the first casualties of the fire were cell phone towers.

While cell phones were not as widely used then as they are today, they were still important.

Without them, the city turned to local ham radio operators to help keep the lines of communication open.

Another critical part of today’s emergency plan is not only how the people affected are dealt with —the 2003 evacuation was the biggest non-wartime civil evacuation in Canadian history to that point—it is also how the recovery is dealt with.

Ten years ago, the emergency social services team was headed by Beryl Itani, who has since stepped down from that position but is still a volunteer.

Her team, which started small but soon grew to more than 1,000 volunteers,  handled an evacuation which at the time was equivalent to about one-third of the city.

But what still marvels many is how orderly that evacuation was carried out.

“I remember telling the governor-general about how people were driving out of the Mission and letting cars pull in to line in front of them and the governor-general responding, ‘How Canadian,’” recalled Mattiussi.

Mattiussi credits the work of the RCMP in coordinating that evacuation, helping to maintain the overall sense of calm, despite the fact some people were, at the time, leaving homes they would never see again.

•••

Lessons were learned from the 2003 fire as well as several major fires that have occurred in this area in subsequent years, such as the 2009 Glenrosa blaze in West Kelowna.

Looking to the future, one of the areas the city wants to focus on in the event of a future emergency is the protection of infrastructure.

Spearheaded by Coun. Robert Hobson, who says the city needs to look at how it would provide services such as drinking water, electricity, roads and sewers in the event of a major fire or flooding, the requirement was brought home to Kelowna recently as it watched what Calgary went through with its flooding in June.

The Alberta city was crippled when floodwaters engulfed much of the downtown area.

Fire department officials here say it’s that type of evolution that keeps the regional emergency plan growing, relevant and up-to-date. “We don’t want to sit here and pat ourselves on the back and say everything is exactly as it should be,” said Kelowna fire chief Jeff Carlisle.

awaters@kelownacapnews.com

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