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COLUMN: Evacuation was on my mind during the 2003 fire season

Okanagan Mountain Park Fire came close to populated areas
The Okanagan Mountain Part Fire was clearly visible in August, 2003. The fire reached 25,600 hectares in size and more than 33,000 people were evacuated from their homes.(Phil Maranda - Special to the Summerland Review)

How would I do an evacuation? That was a question dominating my thoughts 20 years ago, during the wildfire season of 2003.

My first wife was quite sick that year. She had been diagnosed with cancer five years earlier and her health and strength had deteriorated since that time. By mid-August and into September, during the worst of the fire season in the Okanagan, she could no longer walk unassisted.

I wondered how I could safely bring her down a flight of stairs and to the door if we had to leave on short notice. With a bit of time, it would have been possible, but if we had just minutes to leave the house, I would have needed assistance.

There was a real possibility of an evacuation that summer.

The 2003 wildfire season was one of the worst in British Columbia’s recorded history. While the number of hectares burned was not nearly as great as in several subsequent years, fires that year burned close to populated areas, putting lives and homes at risk.

Evacuation centres were set up quickly in affected areas, but getting to the centre would have been difficult.

This was happening during a drought year. Conditions were dry and a spark, a cigarette butt or a hot vehicle exhaust pipe could ignite the tinder grasses.

On July 30, the McLure Forest Fire began, the result of a carelessly discarded cigarette butt. That fire was near Barriere, to the north of me, and while I watched the news reports, the danger close to me did not seem imminent.

Then, on Saturday, Aug. 16, everything changed when the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire started. We were out visiting relatives in Kelowna. This was the last time she was able to leave the house, and even for this trip, getting to and from the car took a lot of effort.

The fire was visible on our drive to Kelowna and the smell of smoke permeated the air. On the drive to Kelowna, I thought the fire would be contained and wildfire crews would soon have it under control. That did not happen. Despite the best efforts of wildfire crews, the blaze continued to spread and by evening, it lit up the sky across the lake from West Kelowna.

The fire reached a size of 25,600 hectares. More than 33,000 people were evacuated and 238 homes were lost or damaged as a result of the fire.

While fire crews were working to slow the spread of the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire, other smaller fires were also starting. With each new wildfire report, I continued to think about how to do an evacuation.

The fire season of 2003 was unlike anything I had experienced in the past. The extremely dry conditions that year meant a small wildfire could quickly become unmanageable.

The worst of the wildfire season had passed by the end of September, and my first wife died a couple of weeks later, in October.

Today, life is different. I would have a much easier, much more manageable time coping with an evacuation order in my household today as compared with 20 years ago.

However, others in the province are experiencing what I was dealing with two decades ago. This year, British Columbia is in its most destructive wildfire season on record. Evacuation orders and alerts have been issued for many parts of the province. There are families and couples where one or more people have limited mobility or are coping with significant health issues. People are considering their evacuation plans now, just as I was doing then.

The wildfire season of 2003 is in the past now. I am not coping with the conditions I was facing two decades ago.

As wildfires burn, especially in areas close to where I live, the memories of that terrible summer still linger.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

John Arendt

About the Author: John Arendt

John Arendt has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years. He has a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Journalism degree from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute.
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