Two decades later, record wildfires in Kelowna, B.C. are dwarfed by current season

Two decades later, record wildfires in Kelowna, B.C. are dwarfed by current season
A pair of burnt bicycles lay among the debris of a burnt house in the Oakview area of Kelowna, B.C., Monday, Aug. 25, 2003.

It’s been about five years since Jesse Zeman began a summer ritual of boxing up keepsakes and personal effects to ship to relatives because he worried his home in Kelowna, B.C., would burn down.

Eventually, Zeman said he and his wife moved their treasures permanently after the family had to evacuate twice. Now they have a so-called “go box” prepared and they are ready to leave at a moment’s notice every summer.

They’ve had fires start within a few kilometres of their house many times over the years, but Zeman said he looks back to the devastating season in 2003 when friends’ homes burned down in what was then considered a catastrophic event, but now is the new norm.

“You only need to get woken up at 11 at night because there’s a fire within two kilometres of your house, you only need to do that once to go ‘holy smoke, so this is real,'” he said in an interview. “The risk is very high where we live.”

As British Columbia grapples with a record-breaking wildfire season, the 20-year anniversary of Kelowna’s firestorm brings mixed emotions for those who lived through it, and offers lessons for the present. At the time, the 2003 season was unprecedented in scale, but it has been dwarfed this year by fires that have burned six times more area so far.

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On Aug. 16, 2003, a lightning strike sparked a fire near Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park that eventually grew to 250 square kilometres, spurring evacuations of more than 33,000 residents and damaging or destroying more than 200 homes.

Zeman, executive director of the B.C. Wildlife Federation, published a commentary last month decrying what he calls chronic and prolonged underfunding for renewable resource management in the province.

“In 2003, British Columbia got a taste of catastrophic, uncontrollable wildfires and the pall of choking smoke lasting months,” Zeman wrote. “We were rightly frightened at the prospect of this apocalyptic new reality.”

Zeman said the provincial government has since failed to heed what should have been a wake-up call two decades ago, leading to “fish and wildlife decline, massive uncontrollable wildfires, and widespread drought as the norm.”

Retired firefighter Glen Maddess and his wife live in Kelowna, and he remembers seeing the fire as it smouldered in the park that day in 2003.

He recalls going out for a run, struck by how the fire began gradually growing and moving, then later driving down a main street where residents were being evacuated.

“Just seeing the amount of people having to leave and take their belongings with them, the valuable belongings because they couldn’t take everything, and it’s sort of ‘whoa, this is serious,’ and I’ve been in the business for a long time,” he said.

Even after decades in the firefighting business, Maddess said he was in awe of the “magnitude of the seriousness” of the fire.

“It’s interesting 20 years later that we’re facing basically the same problems as we did before,” he said.

Maddess was later tapped to help prepare a report on the 2003 wildfire season for the provincial government entitled “Firestorm,” authored by former Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon.

“We have learned some lessons,” he said.

There’s now a greater pool of firefighting expertise to draw from provincially, nationally, and internationally, he said.

Maddess said there’s also a greater depth of knowledge about how to respond to interurban wildland fires, where residential development abuts natural landscapes chock full of fuels that feed the now yearly blazes.

The Filmon report said that the 2003 wildfire season scorched over 2,600 square kilometres across B.C., at the time a record amount. So far this season, more than 16,000 square kilometres have burned.

Former Kelowna fire chief Gerry Zimmermann has had a lot of time to reflect on the 2003 disaster, and he’s now just thankful it wasn’t worse as wildfire seasons have only grown in intensity since.

“When I look what’s happening around the world right now like Hawaii and places like that, it makes ours look kind of small,” he said.

Zimmermann, who’s now retired from firefighting, said it’s hard to assess whether the 2003 wildfires were a glimpse into a future with unheeded lessons dooming the province to repeat history.

But he said a few things have improved, especially communications with the public through the media, which at the time was “terrible” before they decided to change course.

“We were giving information out as soon as we had it,” he said. “That was very, very successful. That’s what got us through.”

Zimmermann said “jurisdictional boundaries” were a hurdle back then, too. The fire in Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park was out of the Kelowna Fire Department’s purview.

“What we had decided shortly after this fire, one of the main things was that if something came in, it didn’t matter where it was, we were gonna go deal with it,” he said. “I don’t know whether they’re still doing that or not, but the secret to these things is hitting it as hard and as fast with everything you can right off the bat and keep it small.”

Zimmermann said firefighters were dealing with flames hundreds of feet high at some points, but a miraculous moment from one scary night sticks in his mind.

“We had guys trapped and we were having a heck of a time,” he said. “When it was at its worst, the skies opened up and it started raining.”

The rain that night, he said, gave firefighters a leg up “and after that, things got progressively better.”

“We could have lost a good part of the city and a lot of good people and a little bit of help from upstairs,” he said, “got us through this thing.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 16, 2023.

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