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Waldo Canyon fire eerily similar to Canadian blaze 10 years ago

April 19, 2013
photo - The neighborhoods of Okaview and Kettle Valley were hit hard in the 2003 Okanagan Mountain fire in British Columbia. Photo by Courtesy of Kelowna Deputy Fire Chief Lou Wilde
The neighborhoods of Okaview and Kettle Valley were hit hard in the 2003 Okanagan Mountain fire in British Columbia. Photo by Courtesy of Kelowna Deputy Fire Chief Lou Wilde 

KELOWNA, Canada — The fire started with a lightning strike in Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park, and burgeoned into a megafire that burned thousands of acres and 249 homes, and left this British Columbia town shaken but triumphant.

Ten years ago, British Columbia’s “summer of fire” overwhelmed an unprepared province that suddenly found itself battling remote wildfires that became urban fires, burning entire communities and forcing the evacuation of thousands. For years the province’s forestry department had allowed forests to grow dense with dry timber. Residents, meanwhile, had built homes deeper in the forests. .

After similarly catastrophic Colorado megafires in 2012, Coloradans have joined a growing pool of wildfire survivors that stretches across Canada, the United States and Australia. In June 2012, the Waldo Canyon fire became the state’s most destructive blaze, and eerily mirrored the Okanagan Mountain Park fire — both triggered the largest evacuations in regional history, both were fueled by high winds, both consumed scores of homes in one night. Ten years out, Kelowna continues to grapple with many of the challenges facing Colorado Springs, such as how to build homes in red zones and managing the threat of future fires, which have continued to plague the Canadian valley.

“The similarities between the two fires is really uncanny,” said Colorado Springs Fire Marshal Brett Lacey, who traveled to Kelowna in mid-April to give a talk about the Waldo Canyon fire.

At the annual international Western Wildfire 2013 conference in Kelowna, Waldo Canyon was a subject of discussion, as it provides valuable lessons on how a well-mitigated neighborhood can endure flames, said Lacey.

“We are a leader in the country, in many respects,” in how the fire department promotes mitigation as well as in its aggressive pursuit of fire code changes, Lacey said. “A lot of people are looking at us.

Convincing residents to take fire mitigation seriously is a challenge, and planning for the next big wildfire, and the potential ensuing flood issues, is now requisite for western cities across North America.

Monstrous blaze

The Okanagan Mountain fire reduced the once-forested hillsides near Kelowna to rocky moonscapes, but it also left behind an indelible sense of pride.

Kelowna City Manager Ron Mattiussi keeps a water-color painting of the fire in his city hall office, and in a file cabinet he stores a folder of newspaper clippings and speeches he made during the blaze. The painting, called “The Red Dragon,” makes him chuckle — during the fire, he spent weeks assuring residents that it was not a beast with a personality, but rather a wind-driven event. Privately, he thought otherwise; it really was a monster, he said.

The fire started on a Saturday, Aug. 16, 2003, in a forest south of Kelowna. All fire in the park had been suppressed for years, and some locals said that the layer of dry pine needles on the forest floor was feet deep. Two days later, Kelowna fire Capt. Jack Kelly was getting ready to leave on vacation. Before heading south to Idaho, he assured his concerned neighbors that the fire would never reach their hillside neighborhood along the shores of Lake Okanagan.

He was wrong.

Every night around nine, southern winds pushed the fire north towards the city. Kelowna Daily Courier Reporter J.P. Squire heard a nightly frenzy of activity on emergency radios — everybody was watching the fire, wondering where it was going. Deputy Fire Chief Lou Wilde made nightly helicopter trips over the fire to get a better look.

“When the lightning strike hit, it was out of our jurisdiction. It didn’t seem like a huge threat at the time.” said Wilde. But on the sixth night, as Wilde flew above the fire and watched the winds push the flames quickly towards Kelowna, he realized the situation had changed. Flames were encroaching on a hillside neighborhood with steep streets and one-way-in, one-way-out roads.

“Let’s get people out of here,” Wilde remembered thinking. “If houses are going to be lost, they are going to be lost.”

That night, a Thursday, the fire burst into Kelowna and burned 17 homes. The next day, over lunch at a local church, Fire Chief Gerry Zimmermann greeted homeowners in red fire-fighting coveralls and a ball cap and told them they had lost their houses. But the fire wasn’t done.

As Zimmermann broke the bad news to homeowners on Friday, Kelly and his family returned, looking at what appeared to be a volcanic eruption above their home, which would burn that night.

The fire would make a second run — Mattiussi ordered the evacuation of 45,000 people, the biggest in Canadian history. Meanwhile, Kelly, Wilde and crews from 60 out-of-town fire departments hit the streets, trying to figure out what they could do.

“A lot of people’s perspective changed in a matter of an hour, when they actually got to see it,” Wilde said. Firefighters with decades of structure firefighting experience realized that blasting homes with water wasn’t going to cut it, Wilde recalled.

As 60 mph winds pushed the flames and embers across southern Kelowna, spot fires ignited all around the crews; a swirling vortex of fire sucked off chunks of roofs and swallowed deck furniture as firefighters ran towards safety at the nearby lakeshore.

“It wasn’t this massive wall of fire that bulldozed through the neighborhoods — it was the spotting. The embers, right?” Wilde said. “It was like having a hair dryer in your face. It was hot and windy — we hadn’t had rain for 60 days.”

Cedar shake roofs and wood decks appeared to spontaneously combust from the heat. When the wind subsided, helicopters dipped buckets into residential pools and dropped the water on nearby burning homes. From the emergency operations center in central Kelowna, Mattiussi and Zimmermann made a tough decision. Desperate to stop the fire, they ordered bulldozers to Barnaby Road to knock down a row of unburned houses to create a fire break.

But just then the weather changed, Zimmermann said.

“Then the sky opened up and there were trenches of water running down the road. And it stopped right there,” Zimmermann said. The dozers turned around. “If it had lasted another 20 minutes we probably would have lost more homes. It was just a stroke of luck that happened.”

That night, 187 homes burned. The day become known as Black Friday.

Lessons learned

Unlike Colorado Springs, Kelowna did not have a well-established wildland mitigation program in 2003; but like Colorado Springs, the Canadian city found itself swept up in an overwhelming disaster that was literally a trial by fire.

Mutual aid calls brought in fire departments from across the province, until there were more firefighters in Kelowna than in the entire city of Toronto, Wilde recalled. All of them had to be fed, given places to sleep, given radios and be accounted for, an overwhelming task for the 100-person Kelowna Fire Department. Managing incoming forces was a challenge for Colorado Springs as well, according to the city’s recently released after action report.

Wilde put a local firefighter on every engine, ensuring that out-of-town engine crews had some local expertise on-board, a tactic also used by the Colorado Springs Fire Department during the Waldo Canyon fire. The Kelowna department can manage a big commercial fire for half a day, Wilde said, but he quickly learned that it needed a more sophisticated structure to manage one of the country’s most devastating fires.

“To run 60 engines companies for one event for two or three weeks, you need to have a structure that will sustain that,” he said. “You need the span of control. We weren’t experienced in that. We are much more efficient now.”

After the fire, the department made sure that every city employee, not just a few, knew the Incident Command System (ICS), a tried-and-true fire management plan developed in the 1970s. Employees of the city of Colorado Springs, while trained in ICS, often struggled to implement the system and rely on it to organize the chaos during the Waldo Canyon fire, according to the city’s report.

Above all, after putting in nearly a month of 20-hour days, Wilde learned that he had to ensure his crews could endure. After a couple of days of free-for-all staffing, Wilde developed a plan to rotate crews. It sustained them for nearly a month, until the fire was declared out.

A depth of staff plan, or a long-term staff plan, was something the city of Colorado Springs overlooked, its report said. Firefighters and staff did not have adequate rest between shifts, the report said. Although Colorado Springs’ firestorm was over in one night, many firefighters joined the all-night fight after a full work week, and some worked for days non-stop.

“People make good decisions because they are rested, when they are not edgy or grumpy,” Wilde said. “When they are working that hard, you got to give them rest, you’ve got to supply them with equipment, pump fuel into the engine.”

Chaos is inherent in disaster, but the lessons learned are crucial. When the fire was over, firefighters like Wilde were plunged into their own difficult recovery. “You’re wired all day. You’re eating Powerbars and Gatorade, and bits of lasagna,” Wilde said. “It’s torture to your body,” and affects your memory and thinking, he added.

The greatest lesson of all?

“It’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen again. And it’s happened half a dozen times,” Wilde said. “Your fire department will be better prepared because of this.”

Recovery paths

The more populated regions of Canada are relatively new to megafires and a few years behind the United States when it comes to insurance policies and wildfire mitigation, according to experts who spoke at the conference in Kelowna.

Kelowna has yet to pass comprehensive, mandatory fire codes, said long range planning manager Gary Stephen. Instead, fire codes are only mandatory for subdivision developments in the city’s red zones; individual construction projects can chose to follow suggestions — or not.

In Colorado Springs, all home construction projects in the wildland urban interface must comply with a new code, whether large developments constructed by one builder or a single custom home.

It wasn’t until 1995 that building codes of any sort were written into law in British Columbia, said Stephen.

“Wildfire wasn’t on our radar in 1995,” he said.

Even after the most devastating fire season in the province’s history, local governments have little power to change the fire codes and make them more restrictive due to political push-back, “The building code is a provincial prerogative,” Stephen said. “The building industry is a very strong lobby, and they were reluctant to push the envelope.”

Nonetheless, many homeowners opted to replace their cedar shake shingle roofs of their own accord, Zimmermann said.

“And that was the big question after — because a lot of homes that burned had shake roofs, and wooden siding, and landscaping with bark mulch,” said Zimmermann. “Most people don’t have shake roofs anymore. You don’t see cedar siding anymore. They didn’t necessarily change the codes, but I think people just stopped doing it.”

While the fire might not have inspired aggressive policy changes on all fronts, it has left an indelible mark on the spirit on Kelowna. What was once a disparate resort community has since banded together, and evidence of the fire’s legacy can be seen all over town. The Kelowna Daily Courier published two books about the fire. Wilde keeps a large photo of burning hillside in his office, and a file of firefighting photos on his computer.

When the fire was over in September 2003, the whole town had a parade down the main street, as if a great war had just ended. But now that the 10th anniversary is approaching, the city has no plans as of yet to bring attention the fire, Mattiussi said.

Instead, the fire’s legacies are memories and lessons learned, renewed nearly every summer as wildfires continue to strike the region.

“We did as many things right as you could expect a group of people to do. It could have turned and I may not be sitting in this chair telling this story,” Mattiussi said. “We’ve learned a great deal, but the end result isn’t necessarily in our control. In my heart, I think we did a good job.”

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