‘The whole landscape has changed’

Lessons from its fiery past saved Kelowna from a raging inferno

 ‘The whole landscape has changed’All wars are defined by the fronts on which they’re fought. As the great Kelowna fire of 2009 gradually receded from the subdivisions of this picturesque B.C. community this week, the pitched battle to defend the Gorman Bros. lumber mill, the biggest employer in West Kelowna, was fast becoming one of those markers. They talked of it on radio call-in shows, in a makeshift refugee camp set up in the Walmart parking lot by evacuees, and, especially, at the mill itself. It was here that an informal coalition of firefighters, helicopter pilots and mill workers courageously drew a line in the dry, brittle grass and turned back the six-storey flames.

Nick Arckle, the mill’s chief forester, was on his way back from downtown Kelowna on Saturday afternoon when he spotted the fire in the hills above the mill. Arckle, who is married to the daughter of the mill’s founder, quickly learned the fight was going badly. Two of his brother-in-laws’ homes, including that of company CEO Ron Gorman, were already engulfed in flames. Meanwhile, the fire, barely 200 m from Arckle’s front door, was advancing fast. Then, as he raced to rescue family photos and keepsakes, the wind suddenly changed, pushing the flames down the hill toward the mill. “The priority became save the business,” he says. “This is a very family-oriented company and the loss of the mill would be a huge impact on this community.”

The family and a skeleton crew of 20 maintenance employees who happened to be working that day swung into action. As firefighters arrived to tackle the blaze, and half a dozen helicopters dropped buckets of retardant on the approaching inferno, workers sprayed water onto roofs and doused piles of sawdust. When spot fires broke out in the yard, crews armed with hoses pounced. When stacks of lumber caught fire like matchsticks, employees used heavy machinery to haul away nearby stacks of two-by-fours. Dozens of other workers, forced to leave their own homes, came to help. For 48 hours, day and night, the battle raged on this way. Finally, on Monday, the mill was deemed safe. By Tuesday afternoon helicopters could still be seen fighting the blaze on the other side of the ridge, but life was slowly returning to normal at the mill. “Yesterday was the first time we felt we could start to breath normally again,” Arckle says, the stench of smoke still thick in the air. Too late, though, for the three families who lost almost everything they owned in the blaze.

Three houses. If the measure of a wildfire is simply the real estate casualty count, then this week’s fire could hardly be compared to the devastating firestorm that swept through Kelowna in 2003, destroying more than 200 homes. But as residents here know all too well, the impact of a fire is felt in the fear it inflicts and the ability of a community to rally together in the face of danger. This fire offered examples of both.

No question, there was fear. Rather than a single blaze, three fires erupted within hours of each other in and around West Kelowna over the weekend. As of Tuesday, a fire near the community of Glenrosa—the one that threatened the mill—had reached 350 hectares, about the size of 750 football fields. Another blaze in Rose Valley had hit 150 hectares. Fire officials had managed to contain 60 per cent of the Glenrosa fire, while the Rose Valley was about 20 per cent contained. Meanwhile, the third and most aggressive fire, at Terrace Mountain, about 40 km to the north, was already up to 1,300 hectares, having nearly doubled in just a day.

At the fires’ peak, authorities had told more than 11,000 people to evacuate their homes. (By Tuesday 6,000 had been allowed back.) Many were already nervously watching Saturday as fires approached their houses. “I could see the flames cresting the hill,” says Darren Wieb, who lives in Rose Valley. “It was about a 40-minute walk away from the subdivision, but you could hear how close it was getting to us.” Many had just minutes to gather their belongings, a sign of how unbelievably fast the fires were devouring the landscape. As Denise Mlakar recalls, there was just enough time to “grab the kids, the photos, and the animals.” As the thousands of residents drove down from hillside homes, traffic ground to a halt at times. The scene reminded Glenrosa resident Mark Wylie of the recent fires in Australia, where many escaping residents were trapped in their cars and died. “I thought ‘This isn’t good, this isn’t good,’ but the RCMP opened up the other lane and everyone started moving again,” he says.

Once cut off from their homes, though, many residents could do little but wait anxiously for word from the front line, wondering whether their houses were safe. Leroy Harland and his wife, Gloria, camped out with their trailer in the Walmart parking lot along with at least two dozen other fifth wheels. Every couple of hours she’d call their empty home to make sure the answering machine picked up. That way, they knew whether the power was still on. Each phone call brought another assurance. “At least we know the house is still there,” says Leroy.

Despite the threat from the fire, though, some residents refused to leave. In those situations, police asked them for contact information, such as next of kin as well as the names of their dentists, in case dental records were needed to later identify their bodies. The tactic was as much about driving home the approaching danger as anything else.

Authorities don’t yet know how the three fires were started, but they do know that humans are most likely to blame. Some have speculated the blazes were triggered by sparks from the mufflers of dirt bikes. Others believe smokers irresponsibly tossing away cigarettes were the cause. Throughout Monday furious callers to a radio show described seeing drivers casually tossing cigarette butts out their car windows. Onlookers jotted down licence plates and were told to report them to police. Sadly, there were other examples of imbecility. At several police roadblocks, a few drivers blasted through checkpoints, narrowly missing officers. There were also scattered reports of looters ransacking abandoned homes, even though police maintained constant vigil in deserted neighbourhoods.

Still, those few outbursts of dim-wittedness were dwarfed by examples of a community rallying together. Evacuated residents had to make their way to an ad hoc emergency centre to register for provincial government food and accommodation vouchers. The scene at the centre, which was set up in a community gym, was one of organized havoc. An army of volunteers took down information, while others from the Salvation Army dispensed hot meals and water. But so many people had tried to bring donations of food, toys and clothes that organizers eventually had to put up a sign pleading with them to curb their generosity: “Donations—We have plenty at this time. Thank you!!”

There were also many cases where residents were forced to leave behind pets of all sizes, from hamsters to dogs to horses. The SPCA mounted rescue missions to recover many animals, while groups like the B.C. Interior Horse Rescue Society and other volunteer organizations retrieved hundreds of startled horses from area barns. Meanwhile, the radio call-in lines lit up with thank yous for area businesses, like Domino’s Pizza, that had donated food and drinks to rescue workers. According to one Walmart employee, the company brought in two tractor-trailers full of water to give to emergency workers. “You think Kelowna is turning into a big city and people are getting colder, but then something like this happens and you can feel everyone’s warmth,” says Wieb.

Those who watched as 200 firefighters, helicopters and air tankers battled and by all accounts began to subdue the blazes, could take heart that lessons from the 2003 fire were heeded. After that inferno, Glen Maddess, a former Vancouver fire chief, helped pen a provincial review that laid out a series of concrete recommendations. Now a firefighting consultant who works with fire departments from B.C. to California, he says the quick response by emergency officials and the speed with which firefighters were able to tackle the blaze all point to those recommendations having worked. For one thing, it used to be only the province that could order evacuations. In 2003 that was fine, because residents had plenty of warning the fire was coming. Since then, local officials were given evacuation powers, which this time was crucial given how fast the fire moved. There was also far more communication between forestry officials and local fire departments. “There has been a marked improvement over what we saw in 2003,” says Maddess. “The whole landscape has changed.”

As of Tuesday, no one was foolish enough to say the danger from these latest fires in West Kelowna had completely passed. Yes, half of the evacuated residents were back home. Firefighters also appeared to be gaining an upper hand against the two fires raging closest to the city. For those families whose homes were destroyed, the long process of counting up their losses and rebuilding their lives was now beginning. Investigators, meanwhile, scoured the blackened forest floor trying to piece together how the blazes started.

But this is the B.C. Interior, in what is shaping up to be a very hot, very dry summer. Another fire broke out near Penticton on Monday, although it was quickly subdued. Others are certain to follow. Whether they’re serious enough to force evacuations on the same scale as these fires remains to be seen. One thing is certain: a whole community is now on edge. “This is all part of the Okanagan ecosystem,” says Arkle, the chief forester at the Gorman mill. “Unfortunately, as we’ve seen once again, when nature does its thing, it can be destructive.”