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

VIDEO: Victoria writer and filmmaker turns her mental illness into mental strength

Mental illness robs Victoria woman of happiness from age 10

Physician assistants say they can help B.C. health care woes

Reducing wait times, improving doctor efficiency is the goal

Additional data from Point-in-Time survey finds most homeless people are local

Most homeless people are young men between the ages of 18 and 24

Two people sent to hospital in View Royal crash

Crash on Island Highway near Six Mile Road snarled the evening commute

Greater Victoria beach clean up recovers 655 pounds of garbage

Cigarette butts, straws discarded at alarming rates on local beaches

VIDEO: How to roll a joint

The cannabis connoisseur shares his secrets to rolling the perfect joint

Advance voting begins Oct. 10 in Greater Victoria

The polls open at 8 a.m. for the 2018 municipal election with the general election taking place Oct. 20

Find your future at Black Press career fair in Victoria

More than 70 booths expected at Bay Street Armoury on Oct. 25

Boeser tallies in OT as Canucks beat Penguins 3-2

Vancouver wins without star rookie Pettersson

Mayor of Kamloops says ‘history has been made’ with vote on B.C.’s lone pot shop

The store to be run by the province in B.C.’s Interior is opening Wednesday as pot sales become legal across Canada

New bus route to ‘replace’ Greyhound along Trans-Canada Highway

Rider Express Transportation says they will soon begin a bus service from Winnipeg to Vancouver

U.S. pot firm urges Trump to deny Canadian producers ‘competitive advantage’

The challenge for U.S. firms lies in the fact that while recreational cannabis is legal in nine states and medicinal pot in 22 others, it remains illegal under federal law

Government says imprisoned Canadian terror suspects must face consequences

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale showed little sympathy Tuesday for such individuals who now want to return to Canada

How rules for inmate segregation in Canada will change under Bill C-83

Federal government proposing changes to rules around inmates in federal correctional institutions

Most Read