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‘Save the rest of the city’: Reflecting on Okanagan Mountain Park 2003 wildfire

The Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire started Aug. 16, 2003, with a lightning strike
The Okanagan Mountain Park fire in 2003 burned 25,600 hectares, forced evacuations in Kelowna and Naramata impacting more than 33,000 people, and destroyed 239 homes. (File photo)

As Kelowna Mayor Tom Dyas remarked, “It is an event that is etched in the minds of all those who experienced it in 2003.”

The city marked the 20th Anniversary of the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire during a news conference Wednesday, Aug. 16).

“We all have our own stories and our own memories,” added Dyas. “We are grateful that no lives were lost and our community strength allowed us to recover from the second largest civilian evacuation in Canadian history.

READ MORE: Lessons learned from the Okanagan Mountain Park fire

The news conference also featured former mayor Walter Gray, who was in office in 2003, and former fire chief Gerry Zimmerman.

The Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire started around 4 a.m. on Aug. 16, 2003, with a lightning strike near Rattlesnake Island.

It eventually burned 239 homes and forced the evacuation of more than 30,000 people.

Despite the destruction, Zimmerman said it could have been much worse.

“We were ready to start bulldozing a swath right around Barnaby Road to try to save the rest of the city. Our fear was it was going to come into the city.”

That’s when the skies opened up, recounted Zimmerman.

“It started to rain. We couldn’t believe it.”

It was the same day, Zimmerman added, that three groups of firefighters had been trapped by 400-foot flames.

“We got two of the groups out, and one we couldn’t they were trapped up in Kettle Valley. They got to a safe spot and climbed under their trucks, but they thought they’d had it.”

Those firefighters were all rescued.

READ MORE: Wildfire experiences shared with firefighters

Zimmerman said municipal departments and wildfire crews are much better prepared today.

“They’re co-ordinated with the forest service, we weren’t at that time. We were too worried about jurisdictional boundaries. They got thrown out and thank goodness they did.”

Current Fire Chief Travis Whiting said 2023 has been a tough year and there is still a long way to go.

“My thoughts are with those who have been impacted so far and I hope for a safe end to this season for everybody involved,” he said.

He also praised the firefighters who battled the Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire.

“The crews that took on that fire worked incredible hours in difficult conditions to protect their community and their homes. Our firefighters were joined by B.C. wildfire service, Canadian Armed Forces, RCMP, and local fire departments from across the province who came together in an amazing show of support.”

Whiting also thanked emergency support service volunteers for their tireless efforts in assisting evacuees.

The Okanagan Mountain Park Fire eventually scorched more than 250 square kilometres and most of the trees in the park.

READ MORE: McDougall Creek fire above West Kelowna grows to 4 hectares


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Gary Barnes

About the Author: Gary Barnes

Journalist and broadcaster for three decades.
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