Mayor Doug Findlater was at his West Kelowna cabin July 18, 2009—the day the Glenrosa fire was first reported.
“I had a sense of foreboding,” said Findlater.
“There was a 70 km/h warm wind coming from the south. I thought: This is weird, this is freaky.”
It wasn’t long after that district staff called the mayor to alert him of the fire and request that he declare a local state of emergency.
Findlater rounded up council members who were in town and available for an impromptu meeting to ratify the state of emergency.
Findlater’s Glenrosa home was immediately put under evacuation order and eventually his cabin was ordered to be evacuated as well.
He and his wife, Willie, reserved a room at a local hotel, checked in with the Emergency Social Services evacuation centre and prepared for a busy week, which would include countless phone calls from national media outlets.
In an in-depth article written for Firefighting in Canada magazine, Kelowna deputy fire chief Lou Wilde spoke with West Kelowna fire chief Wayne Schnitzler to recount the 2009 Glenrosa wildfire.
The blaze was first reported at 2:40 p.m. and began on the fringe of Glenrosa, about a kilometre from Gorman Bros. Lumber Ltd., with 70 km/h winds, a temperature of 37 degree celsius and 13 per cent humidity..
Schnitzler told Wilde managing an interface fire the size of the Glenrosa blaze was like directing several commercial fires at once.
“You rely on your experience from past fires and your decision-making abilities,” Schnitzler stated.
“You need to assess the situation, evacuate the public and determine where to allocate your limited resources, assign people to tasks and put them to work, then begin to evaluate progress and plan for what’s next.”
To make the situation increasingly difficult, that evening a report came in of a second wildfire on the west shore of Rose Valley reservoir.
“In all, 17,000 residents of West Kelowna were ordered out of their homes on July 18, many for an entire week before unified command allowed them to return,” Wilde wrote.
The Glenrosa fire managed to cross Highway 97 to the east; therefore, the highway was closed. Residents evacuated by using Lower Glenrosa Road, which runs parallel to Highway 97.
Glenrosa resident John Huby was one of the many evacuees.
Huby said he is concerned that, had the fire blocked Lower Glenrosa Road as well, there wouldn’t have been an adequate escape route.
Findlater noted the district began a program after 2009 that ensures signage is placed every summer directing drivers to a forest service road north of Glenrosa Road in case of an emergency.
“It’s a gravel road; the maintenance is sporadic,” said Findlater.
“It’s not what I would call optimum. I’d be concerned with hundreds of vehicles trying to use that. But it’s there. It’s something.”
Huby argued the forest service road would be of little help if it was the only escape option.
“The primitive route is not considered to be a sufficiently effective practical alternative for the general public,” said Huby.
Huby said he is also concerned the district has approved subdivision developments since 2009 before sorting out the emergency exit issue.
Work is currently being done on a District of West Kelowna Transportation Master Plan and Findlater said a second effective evacuation route is being considered within the plan.
“I’m told that they’ve identified some potential routes that would probably breach Powers Creek and go over to the Smith Creek area…it may tie into a longer term issue of a Westside bypass; although, I think that’s years away,” said Findlater.
Findlater said he has been given ballpark estimates in the past in the range of $25 million to create a route with a bridge over Powers Creek.
“It’s a costly item and we’ll have to look at the ways we can make that work with other options.
“Every time there is development in Glenrosa, people are concerned. On the other hand, there is revenue created through tax base and development cost charges that can go toward creating that access.”
A report on the district’s Transportation Master Plan, with options for a second route, is expected to be brought to council in the coming months.