Kelowna Residents Respond to Disaster

At times last week, the sky on Kelowna's southern flank seemed possessed by a malevolent force, as though the B.C. city were living under a volcano. Winds would fan the Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park fire, sending unsettling plumes of smoke high into the air.

At times last week, the sky on Kelowna's southern flank seemed possessed by a malevolent force, as though the B.C. city were living under a volcano. Winds would fan the Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park fire, sending unsettling plumes of smoke high into the air. Local radio stations - which have talked of little else since the firestorms of Aug. 22 and 23 forced the evacuation of 30,000 and destroyed 250 homes - would announce the dragon, temporarily lulled, had awakened again. "Tonight it blows only smoke," a broadcaster said after a particularly showy display, as winds blew the 20,000-hectare fire back on itself, and away from the city. Douglas fir and ponderosa pine candled in the distance - exploding in fireballs, like fireworks in the night sky.

The campfire smell that pervaded the city seemed curiously apt, for Kelowna had become a place of temporary lodgings - as it will be for months to come. Strangers and friends alike gathered in restaurants and bars, sharing their stories. These will become the collective history of a community rising magnificently out of the ashes of disaster.

Similar stories were being forged in much of the blazing B.C. Interior - in Naramata and Barrière, in Cranbrook and Spuzzum. With almost 800 fires still burning in the province at week's end, Forests Minister Mike de Jong could not speak of this season in the past tense. "Any one of those fires could turn into this," he said, pointing to the Okanagan park fire during a visit to the hilltop site serving as the forest service command centre. Sure enough, the next day, the Lamb Creek fire in southeastern B.C. whipped into a frenzy, forcing evacuations near Cranbrook. "Everything that can be done has been done," de Jong said of the 5,000 people fighting the fires. "And everything that needs to be done will be done - and there is a hell of a price tag associated with that, close to a quarter of a billion dollars now."

The emotional toll is beyond calculation. All but 4,200 of Kelowna's 148,000 residents were allowed back into their houses within a week of being evacuated. Others will filter back as services are restored. The less fortunate toured the charred war zones of their former neighbourhoods, with little but yellow security tape, rubble and ash to mark their homes.

It all became too much for evacuee Lorraine Langley. The electronic key card to her motel room wouldn't work, and she pounded on the door in frustration, dissolving into tears. The single mother was crowded into the room with her daughter Lavonne, 14, her son Alex, 13, three cats and a dog. On Aug. 24, she'd filed into Trinity Baptist Church with hundreds of others to receive the awful news that her house, in a tidy little mobile-home park, was destroyed. She filed an insurance claim, a bit excited at the prospect of rebuilding. "I was picking the couch I would buy." Then a friend phoned, urging her to look at the front page of that day's Vancouver Sun. Langley was stunned to see an aerial photograph that showed her home and that of her immediate neighbour were the only survivors in a blackened moonscape of destruction. It meant even more uncertainty. Her children were to start school this week, but where? She'd heard rumours the trailer park owner did not want to redevelop the site. "I could be homeless for months," she said.

The disaster brought differing reactions. There was the frustration that uncertainty brings to the dispossessed. There were the inevitable doubts: did forestry crews hit hard enough when lightning first sparked the fire? Such smouldering resentments, however, were largely doused under showers of gratitude and generosity. Fire crews, soldiers, police and emergency personnel were celebrated in signs, in yellow ribbons affixed to lapels and vehicles, and in spontaneous displays of affection. Master Cpl. Devin Ramos of Edmonton's Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, which was mopping up hot spots in the blackened forest, recalled his dinner in town with a buddy the previous night. When the soldiers asked for their bill, it was already paid.

Kelowna Fire Chief Gerry Zimmermann has become a national media star and local hero-in-chief for his deft, compassionate, and occasionally profane handling of the disaster. He's ably backed by Mayor Walter Gray and Ron Mattiussi, director of the city's Emergency Operations Centre. When resident Lisa McLellan and her 10-year-old daughter Lindsey dropped off a batch of "monster cookies" at the firehall, it was with equal measures of gratitude and pride. "I'm so impressed with the city of Kelowna's disaster plan," said Lisa, who works at the local hospital. "They're not a bunch of bumblers, they really know what they're doing."

And with 1,500 soldiers fighting fires in B.C., few accuse Ottawa of indifference. Sgt. Rob Jensen, also with the Patricia's, recalled being thrown into the wild fight to save Kelowna's suburbs. He and a fellow soldier at times grabbed garden hoses to stop spot fires from reaching houses. "You see people's homes, children's toys in the backyard, people driving out of evacuated areas with their kids in the windows. It's sobering. It affirms the importance of what we're doing."

Not all residents fled. Contractor Jerry Scherle, his wife, Beth, and their four children, aged 17 to 25, were among the stubborn two per cent who refused evacuation orders. In those cases, the RCMP collected the names of next of kin, and warned residents not to expect rescue if things got ugly. To defend their 1.6-hectare property on June Springs Road, the Scherles topped up the swimming pool, picked up two 2,700-litre water tanks at a salvage yard, bought a fire pump and hundreds of metres of fire hose, trimmed nearby brush, and set sprinklers on the roof.

Still, nothing quite prepared them for the roaring approach of 120-m-high flames. "We were seriously going to lose our house," said Beth. "I knew it." Jerry's father Siegfred, a pillar of the Salvation Army, had died just five days before, leaving the anguished son to confront the approaching conflagration. Jerry's not a regular churchgoer, but he was having words with the Lord. "What the hell did I do wrong," he asked, "that you bring this thing down my valley?"

By late last week, June Springs Road was among the areas still under evacuation, the fire's leading edge about a kilometre away. The Scherles remained hunkered down. "You know what happened?" Jerry said on the phone from their home, well behind police barricades. "This is like a miracle." That night, when all seemed lost, there was a huge crash of thunder. "And it rained on us," he said. "I'm not kidding you. It rained for five minutes, and there were no more leaping flames." That arm of the fire calmed, its forward march stalled.

The Scherles, like many residents of Kelowna, are left to reflect on the good fortune even amid adversity. And like many here, they have a story to add to the family history. After a week that saw the death of a loved one, the near destruction of the family home, and his own testy appeal to the heavens, Jerry thought his father may have left a final, posthumous gift. "I just wonder," he said, "if maybe he had a talk with Him up there."

Maclean's September 8, 2003