The smell of wood smoke in the air used to evoke memories of a delightful weekend in the woods, enjoying the outdoors and barbecuing hotdogs over an open fire—but today it’s alarming.
In fact, whenever a gusty wind kicks up on a warm summer day, even this late in the season, I find myself on alert for the slightest odor of smoke in the air, or a telltale trail of it in the sky.
Most folks living here during the 2003 wildfire that swept through Okanagan Mountain Park and across the south slopes of Kelowna have the same feelings of apprehension whenever there’s a whiff of smoke on a hot day in this valley.
It’s taken some of the fun out of enjoying a bit of the wood smoke smell that’s reminiscent of the fun of a camping trip.
That’s just one of those things we will never regain, after the horror of watching as that undulating wall of smoke and flame moved across the hills above Kelowna, taking some 238 homes that were in its path and forever changing the landscape.
At the start of that firestorm small trees were bent parallel to the ground under the force of strong, gusty winds; winds that are not uncommon in an Okanagan summer.
We love to build our homes on the natural hillsides of the Okanagan, where mature pines and firs can go up like candles after a cigarette butt is dropped in the dry grass.
Some years later, we were headed to a friends’ barbecue in Glenrosa when a curl of smoke above Gorman Brother’s Lumber mill rapidly turned into leaping flames before our eyes, pushed by strong winds it destroyed three homes and nearly took out the mill as well.
Another fire at the same time threatened to engulf parts of West Kelowna Estates, and changed the look of parts of Rose Valley Regional Park.
It wasn’t the only fire in that beautiful wilderness park in recent years, and along Westside Road there have been a number of blazes that kept firefighters scrambling to prevent the loss of homes.
It’s been suggested that the answer might be in creating golf courses all around our communities.
But we should think a minute before we take a chainsaw to all those glorious evergreens that are native to this dry valley, rip up the silver-gray sagebrush and rabbitbrush, chop down the saskatoons and mock orange bushes and cut off all the wildflowers at the knees.
If a valley surrounded by lush green golf courses is where you want to live, then why would you move to a near-desert climate?
If green grass soothes your soul, why would you choose to live in a valley where dead grasses predominate through most of the year, and where sweetly-scented pine needles rather than aromatic cedar branches are the flavour of the day?
Instead of trying to change the landscape, perhaps we should be changing the behaviour and the attitudes of the people who have moved here.
It’s dangerous to smoke in our natural areas after weeks of hot, dry summer weather unless you don’t use fire to light it and you extinguish it by swallowing it.
It’s not safe to ride a motorbike through the dry grasses of late summer when the least spark from a muffler could set them on fire.
Since people can’t be trusted to keep their campfires small, away from flammable materials, and then put them out before they leave them, perhaps the campfire will have to become a pleasure of the past.
And, that still wouldn’t deal with the natural dangers of lightning-caused fires, but modern technology has become pretty good at detecting them after a dry thunderstorm.
So, do we reform the natural landscapes of this valley, or do we reform people’s behaviour?
I vote for the latter, and let’s keep the unnatural greens to a minimum.
Judie Steeves writes about outdoors issues for the Capital News.