Gerry Zimmermann, seen here in 2003 when he was the Kelowna fire chief during the Okanagan Mountain Park Wildfire that swept through Kelowna’s south end, destroying 240 homes. —Image: Capital News file

Current forest fires bring back memories of 2003 wildfire in Kelowna

Former Kelowna fire chief says plan should be to throw everything at a forest fire early

For two Kelowna men who were front and centre during the Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire 15 years ago, the current forest fire situation in the Okanagan is hitting a little too close to home.

Former Kelowna fire chief Gerry Zimmerman and former City of Kelowna city manager Ron Mattiussi say the current fire burning in Okanagan Mountain Park on the east side of Okanagan Lake not only brings back memories, it’s also a concern.

“Ultimately, these fires are wind-driven events,” said Mattiussi, who spent days in the emergency operations centre set up in Kelowna to co-ordinate the firefighter response to the 2003 wildfire. “It’s Mother Nature.”

That fire destroyed more than 240 homes in southern part of the city, several historic Kettle Valley Rail trestles in Myra Canyon and forced the evacuation of 30,000 people from the Mission area of Kelowna.

Related: Okanagan Wildfires: The latest on wildfires and evacuations

Zimmerman, who was the city’s fire chief during that pivotal moment in Kelowna’s history agrees—shifts in the wind can change a fire’s behaviour quickly, and dramatically.

He said Friday he remembers flying in a helicopter over the 2003 fire when it was still confined to the park and the wind appeared to be pushing it towards Naramata to the south.

He said he was being concerned for the small rural community it appeared to be heading toward.

“But by the time we landed and I got back to the fire hall, the wind had shifted and was blowing the flames towards Kelowna,” said Zimmermann. “And you know what happened next.”

As someone who has been there and done that when it comes to fighting an intense wildfire threatening a city, Zimmermann said he believes the best approach to all forest fires is “hit them with everything you’ve got from the start,” and not let them burn unabated, even if they are considered well away from buildings and humans.

“Not everyone agrees with me on that, but that’s how I feel,” said Zimmermann.

In 2003, because the fire was burning outside of the Kelowna Fire Department’s jurisdiction at the start, his advice went unheeded and he was powerless to change that approach.

Today he says he still feels the same way.

“Hit it hard right away regardless of jurisdiction or cost. Figure all that out later.”

Mattiussi said he understands the sentiment but this time around there are other major fires burning in the area at the same time and, in the case of the Mt. Eneas fire just south of Peachland, they are threatening buildings.

So prioritization of resources may be an issue, he said.

“I’m not going to second guess anyone. I know these guys are trying real hard.”

Zimmermann said he is not trying to be critical of any current decision, but said the Good Creek fire currently burning in Okanagan Mountain Park is eerily similar to the early stages of the 2003 fire. Both started with lightening strikes and were allowed to burn for days before they became a serious threat.

Related: Updated: Complete list of B.C. Interior wildfire coverage

But, according to Mattiussi, unlike 15 years ago, the area is not as dry as it was back then when the area had not seen any serious precipitation for several weeks, the temperature was very high, it was later in the summer, the humidity level was very low and the winds constantly very strong.

In addition to the fires south of Peachland and in Okanagan Mountain Park, there is a also a serious growing fire burning near Summerland. All three blazes are fires of note for the B.C. Wildfire Service.

Flying water tankers, ground crews and heavy equipment are all being used to fight the three fires and all three remain out of control.

More than 40 homes have been evacuated because of the Peachland-area fire and 656 homes are on evacuation alert. The fire is estimated at 1,000 hectares.

Other smaller fires in the area include one near Law Creek southwest of Glenrosa in West Kelowna that has prompted an evacuation alert for 198 properties in the upper Glenrosa area.

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