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Ten years after Kelowna inferno, firefighters take stock of lessons learned

Flames close in around Kelowna, B.C. on Aug. 22, 2003.


Ten years ago, during one of its most damaging wildfire summers to date, British Columbia nearly had its own tragedy of trapped firefighters, not unlike the 19-death calamity in Arizona.

But for a miraculous, brief change in the weather and a chance open space, a group of 15 Kelowna firefighters, huddled under their trucks, surrounded by a roaring inferno, might have perished.

"What happened in Arizona could just as easily have been us. We could have lost them all," recalled Gerry Zimmerman, Kelowna's fire chief at the time, who had broken down in tears as he told reporters about the close call.

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That summer of 2003, which had other devastating fire outbreaks and similar narrow escapes by firefighters elsewhere, changed the way forest fires are fought in British Columbia.

One of the changes was a decision to no longer equip B.C. forest firefighters with so-called "fire shelters," the protective tents deployed by the trapped firefighters in Arizona. Brian Simpson, executive director of the province's Wildfire Management Branch, said there were concerns the added protection might affect a firefighter's thinking and lead to the taking of greater risks.

"Are they going to feel they have another [escape] alternative?" questioned Mr. Simpson. "There also wasn't a lot of evidence that showed they saved lives. We made a decision for B.C. that it would be in our best interest not to pack them."

He stressed he was not second-guessing the use of fire shelters in Arizona, pointing out that conditions in that dry, sweltering state are much different than those in B.C.

But in July and August of 2003, B.C., like Arizona, had tinder-dry woods, a prolonged heat wave and fierce, unpredictable winds.

The McLure fire, north of Kamloops, wiped out more than 70 homes in Barriere, destroyed the tiny community of Louis Creek, including its sawmill, and forced firefighters to flee for their lives when the winds shifted. "It was like driving through a firestorrm. It was absolutely terrifying," said Barriere fire chief Al Kirkwood at the time.

Two weeks later in Kelowna, 223 homes were lost when the Okanagan Mountain Park fire, fanned by winds, suddenly erupted into huge fireballs that roared through several subdivisions.

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Flames moved so quickly, 15 firefighters found themselves surrounded, with no way out. Some called from their cellphones to say goodbye to their families. Another, with black humour, reported to headquarters that they were not really trapped. "We've just go nowhere we can go, right now."

They drove their trucks onto a fortuitous bit of open parkland and took refuge beneath their vehicles, while conserving as much air and water as they could.

"One guy told me that when the flames were coming through, and they were under their trucks, it was like a big blowtorch going by, with the sound of a jet engine," said Mr. Zimmerman, who stepped down as fire chief in 2005. "It just blew up out of nowhere."

Then, in the midst of the inferno, the winds suddenly quieted and it began to rain for about 15 minutes, a downpour that didn't even make it downtown. The firefighters used the unexpected, short-lived break in the weather to escape. "They got lucky," Mr. Zimmerman said.

Mr. Simpson said authorities took note of the numerous near-tragedies to revamp firefighter safety policies. "There's been a huge change in work directions, crew training and condition forecasting that reflect what happened in 2003," he said. "Certainly, there were individual circumstances when we shouldn't have been where we were."

When conditions are particularly extreme, extra care is taken to establish exit routes and safe zones, Mr. Simpson said. "That's built into our planning on a daily basis."

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Meanwhile, as temperatures begin to soar across the province after last month's heavy rains, the Ministry of Forests is banning open campfires in much of the B.C. Interior. However, the overall fire rating is low to moderate in most areas.

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