Kelowna's 2003 Fire: The Unacknowledged Miracle
That's one accurate aim! The unacknowledged miracle of the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park / Kelowna interface fire (Wikipedia entry).
I wanted shed light on one unacknowledged aspect of the 2003 forest/interface fire in Kelowna, that ultimately consumed some 239 homes, achieved a size of 25,912 hectacres (convert to acres), and had a fire perimeter in excess of 197 kilometers (convert to miles) by the time it was 100% contained.
Before I tell the tale, let me quickly provide some background information:
- 2003 was a particularly hot and dry year in B.C.
- Aug 16th: The fire started on Aug 16th, just beyond the southern boundary of Kelowna, in the Okanagan Mountain Park area (map) with few people in the very immediate vicinity. Although the fire was spotted quickly, it was too late to get water bombers here, and up in the air that day. By the time fire suppression started the next day, the beast was well on it's way to earning a place in history.
- Aug 19th: Moving to the north, south and east, by August 19th, the fire had grown to 2,800 HA, and 2,000 Kelowna residents were now on one hour evacuation alert notice.
- Aug 20th: By very early morning August 20th, the fire had now grown to 6,300 HA, and by 10AM, had achieved a size of 11,000 HA. By 11AM, reports were that the fire was now 13,000 HA. Considering the rapid growth of the fire, many Kelowna residents were starting to become alarmed.
- Aug 21st: By early evening the next day, August 21st, the fire had jumped a guard, and residents of 3,100 homes were now ordered out of their houses. This was estimated to affect anywhere from 9,000 - 10,000 people.
- August 22nd: This was the most ferocious night of the fire's destruction; it advanced on exclusive residential areas, consuming over 200 homes that night, with winds pitching the fire forward with 60-70 kph wind gusts. Residential firefighters were facing walls of flames, up to 125 metres high, and advancing at 100 metres per minute in some cases. Burning debris the size of dinner plates were reported landing six to eight kilometres away from the fire.
- Aug 22nd: that same night, another huge evacuation order was given, this time affecting another 20,000 or so residents. At this point, it was estimated that about 1/4 of all Kelowna residents had been ordered from their houses.
- Aug 22nd: The fire was now estimated at 17,000 HA in size. Yet, oddly, this very night, was also beginning of the end for the fire.
- Aug 23: the fire was now estimated at 19,000 HA, although it was growing more slowly now.
- Aug 23: some evacuation orders begin to be rescinded, allowing about 5,000 residents back in to their homes.
- Aug 24th - Sep 8th - although the fire continues to grow, it grows rather slowly aided by a cooling trend and some September rainfall.
- By September 20th, enough rain has fallen, together with firefighting efforts, for the blaze now to be declared 100% contained, and the fire - which had achieved a maximum size of 25,912 HA, had started shrinking. Fire suppression efforts, rains and further cooling temperatures eventually douse the blaze entirely by the end of October.
Yes, a huge fat, rogue weather cell, absolutely blackened with moisture, crossed it's legs and marched all the way from the Pacific Ocean, some 250+ kilometres to the west - over several high mountain ranges, and dropped its load directly on the fire. It was remarkable to watch the effect.
That night, Aug 22nd, I too was starting to become concerned. From the downhill slope of my street, with small Dilworth mountain partially obstructing my view, I could see a wall of orange some 15 kilometres to the south, on either side of Dilworth, highlighting the night sky. It looked alarming, ominous, and unstoppable.
Although we ourselves were not under evacuation alert or order, I decided to fuel the car, in case we need flee. Apparently, many people had the same idea; all the regular and mid grades were sold out, leaving only premium available together with a lengthy wait for a pump.
By the time I returned to my house, some 45 minutes later, I took to the street again to view the fire. It was like someone had turned off several lights. Dilworth was no longer illuminated against the night sky, although the fire was still visible along my western view corridor. No one could tell me what had happened to the eastern illumination in my absence.
Asking my neighbours, friends, etc. the next day yielded no answer - but a couple of days later, one friend who lived on the opposite (western) side of the lake advised he'd seen a fat cloud passing over his house - but had given up hope when it dropped no rain on him.
One the other (fire) side of the lake, it was a different story however; while the firefighters were battling 125 metre high walls of flames, and 100 metre a minute fire advances, just past them to the east, the rain was pouring down. In fact, it came down so heavily in the village 10 kilometres east (Joe Rich) of the fire, that my hockey buddy reported that his eaves couldn't handle the onslaught and overflowed themselves. This, I then knew, was the fire suppression on the eastern front that I'd seen that night.
To the south of the fire, rain was barely reported in Penticton, and very little seemed to drop anywhere else. But on the eastern front, well ... prayers were answered that night.
I don't know how many other people had prayed, but I recall praying for the seed of a major storm to start in the mid-Pacific, because, given the forecast for dry and hot weather continuing, it seemed like this was the only way any rain could possibly arrive.
Even today, it's very hard to find any record of this rainfall, or the role it played in slowing the fire. The rain of August 22nd: Kelowna's unacknowledged miracle.
Photos: Aug 22 2003 Burning
Other Images (and index)
As recorded by Jay Walker
Faiths Faces Kelowna