Princeton wildfire photos courtesy of Debbie Lyon.

Princeton wildfire photos courtesy of Debbie Lyon.

‘It’s like deja vu’: Former Kelowna Fire Chief on B.C. wildfires

Gerry Zimmermann says the current situation in B.C. takes him back to the 2003 wildfire in Kelowna

While wildfires rage across B.C., residents fight to save lives, possessions, property and animals.

It’s not the first such crisis in this province, and is not going to be the last.

Former fire chief Gerry Zimmermann of Kelowna watches, and thinks back to his own experience in one such inferno.

He recalls comments from California scientists following the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Wildfire.

“They warned us that situations like we had would become common occurrences moving forward.”

Zimmermann, now retired, was the Kelowna fire chief 14 years ago when Firestorm 2003 roared through the southern part of his city, destroying more than 230 homes.

He became the face of the firefighting effort, down-to-earth with the media and public.

City firefighters, aided by other B.C. and Alberta fire crews, battled the advancing flames.

EDITORIAL: Wildfire preparation and response inadequate

Ultimately, they won control, saving individual neighbourhoods and an entire city, in what became a watershed moment in Kelowna’s history.

With 150 wildfires continuing to engulf B.C.’s Interior, some might forget the 2017 fire season came in rather cold.

B.C. WILDFIRES: Fires in recent years by region
Create line charts

By July 13 of this year – nearly one week since residents in 108 Mile House were evacuated – there have been fewer fires burning this season compared to last.

But the recent upsurge in hectares burned has the former Kelowna fire chief concerned and reflective.

Zimmermann’s heart goes out to the evacuees seeking refuge in Kamloops and Prince George. He oversaw the evacuation of close to 30,000 residents – one of the largest emergency movements of people in Canada in recent decades.

“It’s like deja vu.”

Currently, 16,000 people have been forced out of their homes through the Cariboo and Thompson-Nicola regions.

RELATED: Wildfires burn 111,000 hectares across B.C.

Unlike in Kelowna, resources now are stretched thin, Zimmermann says. At present, a total of 31,000 personnel are working to contain the blazes.

In 2003 there were 2,500 wildfire starts, predominatly across the Interior. About 45000 people were evacuated, and thetotal cost of firestorm was $700 million, including property losses. Three pilots died in the line of duty.

“Back when we had our fire, we were the focus and we had the attention of the province, and even the country,” said Zimmermann.

In any major fire situation communication and releasing as much information to the public is integral. In 2003, fire officials were praised for the constant communication delivered to residents at the time, Zimmermann recalls.

Rumours of neighbourhoods being burnt down due to the Ashcroft Reserve fire were circulating on Facebook, leaving local residents uneasy.

Meanwhile, Cariboo Regional District Chair Al Richmondsays it’s too dangerous to check properties in the 105 Mile area.

“It’s important to keep people in the loop,” he said. “Possibly the most important thing.”

But, with evacuees sent far from their homes, he understands it can be difficult to reach everyone. Still, he said, “nobody is that busy that they can’t tell people what’s going on.”

“We were lucky, we were able to evacuate people into a centralized place,” he said.

Currently, in some cases, residents evacuated from fire-threatened areas are being housed in cities as far away as Prince George, Kamloops and Kelowna, some many miles from their homes.

One of the biggest assets Kelowna had during the Okanagan fires was a good and well-established regional emergency plan, he said.

It should be mandatory for all regional districts, Zimmerman recommended. B.C. should have similar plans drawn up and ready to be activated to deal with both large and smaller-scale emergencies.

“Look at southern California now. They get (serious wildfires) every year.”

Fires Storm Report: 2003 by Ashley Wadhwani on Scribd

Just Posted

Fruit farmers in the Okanagan and Creston valleys are in desperate need of cherry harvesters amid COVID-19 work shortages. (Photo: Unsplash/Abigail Miller)
‘Desperate’ need for workers at Okanagan cherry farms

Fruit farmers are worried they’ll have to abandon crops due to COVID-19 work shortages

Men in a work camp at Mile 46 on the Big Bend Highway. 
(Revelstoke Museum and Archives Photo 2259)
Glimpses of Revelstoke’s past for June 17

Bumper strawberry crop, Mt. Logan climbers and unemployment relief

(File)
‘It’s not going to work here’: Revelstoke mayor to meet province over ambulance changes

There is a new system being introduced across the province called Scheduled On-Call (SOC)

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Over 5K jabbed at Interior Health mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinics

The clinics have made stops in more than 40 communities since launching last week

The crosswalk is at Third Street and Mackenzie and was installed on June 17. (Liam Harrap - Revelstoke Review)
Painting a rainbow: First Pride crosswalk installed in Revelstoke

‘It signals to the community that this city is inclusive,’ Mayor Gary Sulz

A small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins pass by close to shore in Campbell River June 16, 2021. Still capture from video courtesy of Kimberly Hart
VIDEO: Dolphin sunset captured from Vancouver Island shore

Spectacular setting for view of travelling pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins

Starting in 2022, the Columbia Shuswap Regional District is extending dog control to the entire Electoral Area D. (Stock photo)
Dog control bylaw passes in Shuswap area despite ‘threatening’ emails

CSRD board extending full dog control in Electoral Area D starting next year

A North Vancouver man was arrested Friday and three police officers were injured after a 10-person broke out at English Bay on June 19, 2021. (Youtube/Screen grab)
Man arrested, 3 police injured during 10-person brawl at Vancouver beach

The arrest was captured on video by bystanders, many of whom heckled the officers as they struggled with the handcuffed man

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Patrick O’Brien, a 75-year-old fisherman, went missing near Port Angeles Thursday evening. (Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)
Search for lost fisherman near Victoria suspended, U.S. Coast Guard says

The 75-year-old man was reported missing Thursday evening

Bruce Springsteen performs at the 13th annual Stand Up For Heroes benefit concert in support of the Bob Woodruff Foundation in New York on Nov. 4, 2019. (Greg Allen/Invision/AP)
Canadians who got AstraZeneca shot can now see ‘Springsteen on Broadway’

B.C. mayor David Screech who received his second AstraZeneca dose last week can now attend the show

New research suggests wolves can be steered away from the endangered caribou herds they prey on by making the man-made trails they use to hunt harder to move along. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Culling cutlines, not B.C. wolves, key to preserving caribou herds: researcher

The government has turned to killing hundreds of wolves in an effort to keep caribou around

Gary Abbott (left) and Louis De Jaeger were two of the organizers for the 2014 Spirit of the People Powwow in Chilliwack. Monday, June 21, 2021 is Indigenous Peoples Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of June 20 to 26

Indigenous Peoples Day, Take Your Dog to Work Day, Onion Rings Day all coming up this week

Most Read