On the night of Saturday, August 23, 2003, I stood on the side-road that runs along the eastern edge of Mt. Boucherie–an extinct volcano overlooking the South Mission area of Kelowna, British Columbia–and watched through field-glasses as more than 200 homes burned to the ground and 26,000 people fled from the eastern flank of the city. After practicing the night before, I could easily distinguish the black pall of a burning house from the lighter smoke of the forest-fire.
I handed the field-glasses to my nine-year-old son, who peered with confusion until he finally gave up and started looking with un-aided eyes. I’m not sure if he understood and I didn’t feel the urge to enlighten him. Where on Friday night the fire had been hanging above the sub-division known as Kettle Valley in sickening proximity, it was now impossible to distinguish the various spot fires from the street-lights, at least until one of the remaining trees crowned, sending flames some three to four hundred feet into the air and, even from a distance of several kilometres, making our faces hot. Further down the lake, I could see the frame of a house, doors and windows inside one of the many infernos.
A week earlier, my wife had looked outside at the passing lightning-storm and wondered aloud if we would be facing a fire the next morning. The first day, we hardly noticed the small blaze that had been started as a result of lightning. It was not much more than a trail of smoke to the southeast. That night my wife pulled me outside to watch as flames crept over the top of the ridge.
The Okanagan Mountain Fire subsequently became the #1 tourist attraction in the Okanagan Valley. A circus of people with binoculars and video cameras followed the vantage-point as the fire crept steadily down the ridge on the other side of Okanagan Lake. Driving became doubly hazardous as onlookers watched the blaze instead of oncoming traffic and smoke dropped visibility to something like dense fog.
The fire would seemingly doze sometimes, only to be revived within a couple of hours. But the smoke was always omnipresent. It had begun as a pleasant spice in the breeze, eventually becoming a constant burning sensation in the backs of our throats. It obscured all views, permeated our houses and clothing and dropped the outside temperature by 15 degrees. The sun was replaced by a red ball that would fade in and out of view. On the night of August 21st, the fire had reached the area directly across the lake from our home. It now resembled a scene from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, glowing from within a pall of smoke that reached so high into the atmosphere the top was capped with ice clouds, like the anvil of a thunderhead.
On the 22nd of August, the pall had been tipped over on it’s side by a constant breeze, obscuring the morning light in Westbank. At noon, the streetlights were on. That evening, eleven houses were burned to the ground in the Timberline-Rimrock area south of Kelowna as fire-fighters were forced to flee a wall of flame some 150 meters in height.
The Kelowna Fire Department issued a tearful apology. The public sense was that someone had failed. On Saturday morning, I talked to an old man in Peachland, a community just south of Westbank, who explained to me how he had seen the lightning-strike that had precipitated the Okanagan Mountain Fire. “They had the thing out,” he said, “and then they just took off and left it to smolder. They knew better.”
In fact, the Okanagan Mountain Fire was a new reality. After an unusually dry spring and nearly two months of rainless days where temperatures regularily soared to over 35 degrees celsius, no-one could have imagined how combustible the woods really were. A month before, I had been hiking in Rose Lake Park outside of Westbank when a couple of forestry officers politely took me aside and explained that my mere presence was a fire hazard. I might, they said, turn a piece of broken glass with my foot, re-focussing the glare of the sun and setting off a spark. They were looking for a motorcyclist who had ignored the No Trespassing signs at the park entrance.
Back then, the warnings seemed paranoid. On the last day of my son’s week-long mountain-climbing camp, his instructor led us through the Kettle Valley subdivision, an area that would, a week later, become the center of a class six fire-storm, the most serious rating for a wildfire. In the woods, I asked him if Forestry had a problem with him being there. He shrugged. “They haven’t said anything yet.”
On the night of August 23rd, watching the houses burn, I remembered that walk through the streets of Kettle Valley. The yards, as I recalled, were like paintings from a suburban fable, replete with built-in sprinklers and lawns so recently sown you could still see the outlines of the sod-squares. In the driveways, there were SUV’s tugging trailers loaded with mountain-bikes and jet-skis. They were the quintessential symbol of everything Kelowna stands for–fun, carefree, and profitable. That day, I had looked at them with outsider disdain. My little trailer in Westbank was the kind of thing these people had probably fought to escape. Watching those houses burn, however, transformed my disdain to despair.
I had felt similarily watching the Trade Towers fall in New York City during the 911 terrorist attack. Sure, they were symbolic of everything I hated–the centre of a mega-mall that was turning half of the world into Walmart customers and the other half into refugees. But as long as those towers were standing, even those of us who lived on society’s fringes could wake up in the morning with the confidence that we would not be running for our lives in the wake of some uncontrolled destruction. Pax America may be an evil place to live, we thought, but at least it’s safe.
Even after 911, the citizens of Kelowna continued to feel the comfort of being in a relatively nonthreatening tourist attraction. We didn’t have tornadoes, hurricanes, or a soaring crime rate. We didn’t even have those Canadian winters, thanks to our geography being more directly connected to the desert area of America’s Great Basin than the Great White North.
On the morning of Saturday, August 23rd, Kelowna was still trying to hold onto that image. Homes had burnt to the ground, yes, but not nearly as many as had been originally reported. The fire seemed to be under control. The “night of hell” was over and we could all count ourselves lucky that nothing worse had occurred, the radio announcers suggested.
As the afternoon approached, I heard the wind-chimes on our porch. I looked out the window and was surprised to see the other side of Okanagan Lake for the first time in days. The wind was bending the treetops as I ran outside, jumped in the car, and drove down the street to my mother’s house. “Can I borrow your police scanner?” I asked. “I think something is going to happen.” Early weather reports had suggested that wind was coming and that such an occurrence might make the Okanagan Mountain Fire more volatile. On a hunch, I decided that the police scanner would tell me more than the local media outlets who had been notoriously behind the progress of the fire over the preceding couple of days.
Turning on the scanner, I heard the voice of Kelowna Fire Department captain Len Moody. He sounded controlled and focussed, but he was talking to a group of men who were trapped in Bertram Creek Regional Park, an area located between Rimrock Road, where the eleven houses had burned the night before, and the Kettle Valley subdivision. They were surrounded by flames. As I continued to listen, I learned a few things about the language of firemen. A fire-truck was referred to as a “tender”. Centralized areas of operation were called “stagings”. The last-ditch attempt to stop the progress of the flames was a “stand”.
“We’re making a stand on Curlew Drive!” a frantic voice kept shouting. Those on Curlew Drive would eventually be cut off as well. They would struggle to keep their supply of water from being shut down, a worst-case scenario that seemed more and more likely as the fire progressed that afternoon. Although no-one was talking about the consequences at the time, it would later qualify as a miracle that those on Curlew Drive had not lost their lives.
I turned on the television and noticed the talking heads still comforting the public with assertions that no houses were on fire. Perhaps they really didn’t know, I decided, or maybe they were trying to reserve their knowledge, hoping that these reports, like the one that had verified 25 homes lost the night before, were greatly exaggerated. Suddenly, the scanner came alive with firemen calling frantically for support at the junction of Crawford Road and Stewart Road West. I looked on my Kelowna map and realized with growing dread that the fire had pushed well inside the boundaries of Kelowna. When a voice on the radio reported flames spotted at the junction of Raymer and Gordon Drive–only a minute from the downtown core–my mother got up from her chair and started crying.
The next 24 hours would be a daze of scurrilous reports, no sleep, and what I soon came to know as terror. I eventually learned that there’s a language for terror now, post-911. It really doesn’t matter whether the terror is precipitated by people or lightning-strikes in drought-stricken forests. The next day, we already had a “yellow-ribbon” campaign. Firefighters were once again the heroes of the moment. But most palpably, we had a symbol for our terror that we now watched for with all-consuming paranoia, a symbol just as overwhelming as that of a jumbo-jet smashing into a skyscraper. For us, it would be a puff of smoke on the horizon.
A day after the Okanagan Mountain Fire consumed those 248 homes, my wife and I were driving back from Kelowna. Little groups of soldiers could be seen wandering along the highway that runs through the city. The downtown was eerily quiet for an August Sunday in the city. Then the radio announcer directed out attention to the area just north of Westbank. A new fire had broken out. We hurried home and watched as black smoke started to fill the sky above our house. My mother called, instructing us to start packing our essential belongings.
That was when I realized we would never be able to observe smoke on the horizon again with the faith that it would not blossom into a raging inferno and eventually turn us into refugees. This has nothing to do with the ability or lack thereof ascribed to the firefighting services in our area. The debate that’s already beginning about this issue in Kelowna is the normal reaction of human beings trying to find a justification for their failure to protect themselves. We’re problem-solvers, after all. In the wake of 911, we’ve managed to find a whole range of solutions that we can plug into the various "causes"–we were too easy on the Muslim extremists, we used Third World countries to support our corrupt materialism, more bombs, more love, more of something is all we need, depending on which side of the political spectrum our theories fall. In Kelowna, the most popular answer to a future firestorm inside the city limits is more bombs, or at least, bigger and better water-bombers.
Waterbombers would eventually attack the small Westbank fire with unprecedented veracity. It would be out within an hour, thanks to having most of British Columbia’s firefighting capability stationed in our area.
Such is life in the war-zone.
Meanwhile, the paranoia gets increasingly arch. People who smoke in their cars have suddenly become Kelowna’s equivalent of Iraqi terrorists, due to their imagined inability to refrain from throwing their cigarette butts out of car windows. A few smokers, for their part, are getting so incensed with this latest stigma that they’re fulfilling the paranoid’s prophecy, egging on the locals by holding cigarettes at arms-length or even dumping ashtrays on the roadside. Elsewhere, there are reports of fires being set deliberately in the area by some poor sap who thought he might be able to get his fifteen minutes of fame on the cheap.
The media has gone berserk. A friend from Williams Lake called our wife, hysterical after seeing the headline “Westbank in Flames” on one of the news networks. Her sister called from New Brunswick after having heard that 10,000 people were evacuated from Kelowna. “That’s 26,000,” my wife corrected her gently.
Nothing will sufficiently address our terror. The fact we all learned in Kelowna on the night of August 23rd was that we are not in control, no matter how much money we spend or how high we build our walls. As the Rolling Stones sang on stage at Altamount, “war, children…it’s just a shot away.”
At the time of my writing this, the Okanagan Mountain Fire is sleeping fitfully. It lies a little to the east of Rutland, a suburb of Kelowna. My mother still has her belongings packed in her car, due to the daily reports of spot-fires within several kilometres of where we live in Westbank.
The long-range weather report is hot and dry.
2447 w. August 26, 2003