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Lessons learned from Kelowna’s infamous 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire

Evacuees, officials of 2003 blaze lay out what lies ahead for those who lost their homes this year

When the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire encroached on the Upper Mission city limits of Kelowna, Bruce Telford and his wife were among those who suddenly became evacuees.

Part of the cavalcade of residents who fled the encroaching flames on a Thursday evening, they were relocated to a hotel and anxiously awaited word on the fate of their house.

Ultimately, 238 homes were lost or damaged by the fire, which ignited via a lightning strike on Aug. 16.

But by that weekend, he didn’t know that as they ventured out to a local fast food place to have some breakfast on the Sunday morning.

“I was reading my complimentary Province newspaper when I saw this picture of a house that survived the fire, and I recognized it as being my neighbour’s house and that the pile of ash next door to it in the photo would have been my house,” Telford recalled.

“My wife was sitting there next to me, and I wasn’t sure whether or not to show her the newspaper as she would see that same picture and figure out as I did at that moment that our house was gone.”

That experience for the Telfords, and others like them who rebuilt their homes and their lives in the aftermath of the 2003 wildfire and the many others that have occurred since across the Okanagan Valley, was replayed again last week when the loss of Killiney Beach neighbourhood homes became evident from the White Rock Lake wildfire, along with one home from the Mount Law fire.

READ MORE: Fundraiser launched for West Kelowna teacher who lost home in Mount Law wildfire

The lack of communication about property damage, the loss of personal property and mementos that can’t be replaced, frustration with provincial firefighting efforts, how people would live and their kids be enrolled in school, how to deal with the immediate unknown that tomorrow brings – Telford and so many others have gone through that process and moved on.

“I think at this point what people in that situation are really looking to is for someone to have their back,” Telford said.

He says one aspect is making contact with your insurance broker to begin the process of filing a claim, and the other perspective is figuring out “where your next meal is going to come from, where will I stay.”

“The infamous 1-800 number to seek help doesn’t really cut it I don’t think. People need to know where to go locally to get that kind of assistance,” Telford said.

And while those supports exist, more often than not it relies on the evacuee to seek out help. None of the service providers will come looking for you.

“Going through that process would take a year out of our lives,” Telford recalled of rebuilding their home in the Upper Mission.

Telford says that process for them broke down into three stages – initial government assistance and communication; dealing with insurance companies and rebuilding – with each offering its fair share of frustrations.

“It was very disruptive and not something I would want to go through again. I was very lucky in that I was self-employed so I managed my own timelines and timetable as opposed to being an employee accountable to a boss where you can’t spend too much time on those things at the expense of your job.”

Gerry Zimmermann, Kelowna’s former fire chief who gained national media exposure during the Okanagan Mountain Park fire, felt then and still feels strongly today that immediate communication is critical for wildfire evacuees.

Back earlier in the summer of 2003, the TV image of a resident in the Barriere area upset, wondering two weeks after having been evacuated by a wildfire whether or not his house was still standing stuck with him.

“After seeing that, we decided to do the exact opposite. We would notify people as soon as we knew anything,” Zimmermann said. “In that situation, we all want to know what is going on. Not knowing is the cruel part.

“If you know you have lost your house, you can at least start to deal with that.”

Zimmermann encountered some resistance to that philosophy from his provincial counterparts, a mindset he still sees today which he feels often leads to frustration and misinformation.

“The bottom line is people want to know what is happening. How many bulldozers, helicopters, men on the ground are fighting a fire tells you nothing if you have been evacuated…You want to know your house has not burned to the ground. People need specifics as soon as they can be known.”

Ron Mattiussi was the City of Kelowna director of planning and lead official on the Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire for the city, along with being evacuated himself.

He says the most important thing for evacuees to do off the start is register at the emergency response centre, where help to provide immediate housing and other support needs can be channelled to the people who need them.

Provincial and municipal officials also carry out damage assessment reports to determine what has been lost, which can become complicated when structures exist on properties without a proper building permit, making that stage of the process more cumbersome

“That is going on right now so that information can be passed on to residents and to insurance companies to deal with,” Mattiussi said of the White Rock Lake fire.

As well, as the plight of wildfire property loss victims becomes more clear, other non-profit agencies will step forward to help meet people’s outstanding needs, which can be everything from a trailer to live into basic clothes on your back.

He recalls from 2003, the importance of communication, from directing charity support where it was needed to taking time himself to visit the emergency centre and “get a sense of what was going on” during those days when the wildfire was out of control.

“I would see some people who were gung ho to get back to their properties and rebuild, and others who wanted to move on because of the trauma they escaped from. It is just a really, really, tough time right now for people who lost their homes in these fires to figure out what to do next,” he said.

READ MORE: Kelowna coffee shop offers free coffee, workspace to wildfire evacuees

“My heart goes out to everybody in that situation. I certainly understand their feelings. I know it is not easy to say this in response, but it takes time, it really does.

For Telford, hosting friends at his home who were evacuated from the White Rock Lake fire reminded him of one word that tends to sum up what evacuees are feeling – uncertainty.

“That uncertainty is in I don’t know what the next steps, what I should be doing, and who do I take those next steps with,” he said.

Telford said he is forever grateful that city officials - in particular Beryl Itani, long-time emergency services coordinator, and Mattiussi – for what he terms “having their act together.”

“I know Beryl by name and I have never met her to this day, but she resonated with such a strong confident voice in the public domain during that time. There was no confusion on her part. She conveyed that and made people feel comfortable during a very uncertain time,” he said.

READ MORE: White Rock Lake wildfire ‘far from over’: Vernon mayor

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Barry Gerding

About the Author: Barry Gerding

Senior regional reporter for Black Press Media in the Okanagan. I have been a journalist in the B.C. community newspaper field for 37 years...
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