Princeton wildfire photos courtesy of Debbie Lyon.

‘It’s like deja vu’: Former Kelowna Fire Chief on B.C. wildfires

Gerry Zimmermann says the current situation in B.C. takes him back to the 2003 wildfire in Kelowna

While wildfires rage across B.C., residents fight to save lives, possessions, property and animals.

It’s not the first such crisis in this province, and is not going to be the last.

Former fire chief Gerry Zimmermann of Kelowna watches, and thinks back to his own experience in one such inferno.

He recalls comments from California scientists following the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Wildfire.

“They warned us that situations like we had would become common occurrences moving forward.”

Zimmermann, now retired, was the Kelowna fire chief 14 years ago when Firestorm 2003 roared through the southern part of his city, destroying more than 230 homes.

He became the face of the firefighting effort, down-to-earth with the media and public.

City firefighters, aided by other B.C. and Alberta fire crews, battled the advancing flames.

EDITORIAL: Wildfire preparation and response inadequate

Ultimately, they won control, saving individual neighbourhoods and an entire city, in what became a watershed moment in Kelowna’s history.

With 150 wildfires continuing to engulf B.C.’s Interior, some might forget the 2017 fire season came in rather cold.

B.C. WILDFIRES: Fires in recent years by region
Create line charts

By July 13 of this year – nearly one week since residents in 108 Mile House were evacuated – there have been fewer fires burning this season compared to last.

But the recent upsurge in hectares burned has the former Kelowna fire chief concerned and reflective.

Zimmermann’s heart goes out to the evacuees seeking refuge in Kamloops and Prince George. He oversaw the evacuation of close to 30,000 residents – one of the largest emergency movements of people in Canada in recent decades.

“It’s like deja vu.”

Currently, 16,000 people have been forced out of their homes through the Cariboo and Thompson-Nicola regions.

RELATED: Wildfires burn 111,000 hectares across B.C.

Unlike in Kelowna, resources now are stretched thin, Zimmermann says. At present, a total of 31,000 personnel are working to contain the blazes.

In 2003 there were 2,500 wildfire starts, predominatly across the Interior. About 45000 people were evacuated, and thetotal cost of firestorm was $700 million, including property losses. Three pilots died in the line of duty.

“Back when we had our fire, we were the focus and we had the attention of the province, and even the country,” said Zimmermann.

In any major fire situation communication and releasing as much information to the public is integral. In 2003, fire officials were praised for the constant communication delivered to residents at the time, Zimmermann recalls.

Rumours of neighbourhoods being burnt down due to the Ashcroft Reserve fire were circulating on Facebook, leaving local residents uneasy.

Meanwhile, Cariboo Regional District Chair Al Richmondsays it’s too dangerous to check properties in the 105 Mile area.

“It’s important to keep people in the loop,” he said. “Possibly the most important thing.”

But, with evacuees sent far from their homes, he understands it can be difficult to reach everyone. Still, he said, “nobody is that busy that they can’t tell people what’s going on.”

“We were lucky, we were able to evacuate people into a centralized place,” he said.

Currently, in some cases, residents evacuated from fire-threatened areas are being housed in cities as far away as Prince George, Kamloops and Kelowna, some many miles from their homes.

One of the biggest assets Kelowna had during the Okanagan fires was a good and well-established regional emergency plan, he said.

It should be mandatory for all regional districts, Zimmerman recommended. B.C. should have similar plans drawn up and ready to be activated to deal with both large and smaller-scale emergencies.

“Look at southern California now. They get (serious wildfires) every year.”

Fires Storm Report: 2003 by Ashley Wadhwani on Scribd

Just Posted

Rossland’s asset management planning takes centre stage at BC conference

Mayor Kathy Moore and CAO Bryan Teasdale recapped Rossland’s asset and infrastructure planning.

City of Rossland celebrates completion of Spokane Street Infrastructure Project

The City of Rossland celebrated the completion of the Spokane Street Infrastructure Project.

Thankful client shares story at Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy AGM

Kyoko Smith came to CBAL through a settlement program, her story highlights what CBAL is all about.

Politics and the Trail public library

Trail addresses the politics of public library; challenges with funding and governance

UPDATE: Two seriously injured in head-on crash near Genelle

A multi-vehicle accident closed down Highway 22 between Castlegar and Genelle for almost four hours

VIDEO: Rare comic showing Superman’s 1st appearance to be auctioned

The 1938 comic features Superman hoisting a car over his head

Education minister blasts Chilliwack school trustee on gender issues

Fleming calls Neufeld’s behaviour ‘shameful’ and ‘unacceptable’

BC Transit buses to get safety door for drivers

These new full-length doors will be tested in Victoria, Kelowna and Abbotsford

‘Fresh eyes’ looking into three missing Cowichan Tribes men

First Nations want answers to their disappearances

Pedestrian hit moments after receiving safety reflector from police

The Vancouver Island man was treated for minor injuries by police at the scene

FortisBC LNG site exports first shipment of gas to China

The shipment is part of a pilot project that could see more exports in the future.

BC RCMP hunt for white SUV that rammed cruiser

Kamloops RCMP are looking for a white SUV headed north on the Yellowhead Highway

B.C. to reimburse methadone patients for taking clinic fees off welfare cheques

Provincial government agrees to pay back more than $5.5 million in deducted fees

Stiff fine for B.C. man caught trafficking bear parts

A Cache Creek resident was charged after an undercover sting operation by conservation officers

Most Read