the unforgettable fire

The following is my account of the Glenrosa, Rose Valley and Terrace Mountain forest fires in July 2009. These pictures and words first appeared on my Flickr account.

(18.7.09. 7:45pm)

My city is on fire.

It's been seasonably hot lately...no rain for at least a week, and temperatures consistently above 30C. Can't lie, I was beaming at the thought of a weekend spent on the beach.

About 2:30 this afternoon a fire started in the hills above Gorman's Mill, in an area called Glenrosa. It started to spread quickly through the dry forest. The winds started to gust. Within two hours it had grown to 15 hectares large. Helos started to appear on the horizon first, dropping their buckets on the blaze.

Then the winds changed direction. The fire jumped the highway, and started burning down towards the lake. Evacuations started coming fast and furious. 4000 homes are currently evacuated, approximately 10000 total people displaced. 5 hours later, the total size was pegged at 50 hectares. Bombers started to appear; according to local radio, every plane in the province has been called to fight this blaze.

The worst part is that only 6 years ago we had a similar fire in this area, directly across the lake from this one. 45000 people were evacuated, 239 homes were lost. Driving across the bridge with the ash coming down and the smoke coming trough the air vents, it felt like reliving a really bad dream.

An overnight bag, my computer and camera gear are sitting at the door. The blaze is 6 km away. Radio just announced it's at 200 hectares wide.

(18.7.09. 10:12pm)

Three local radio stations (Top 40, easy listening, and talk) are simulcasting updates.

Second fire further north announced, near Fintry. Currently 55 hectares large. Sparsely populated, but also growing fast.

Lists of evacuated streets are being read out. Including Reece Rd, unnervingly enough.

Air support has been suspended for the night.

The command center for battling the blaze actually had to be relocated due to advancing flames.

Third fire announced at Rose Valley dam.

Won't be sleeping tonight.

This photo was featured on CBC.com as well as CBC Newsworld coverage.

(19.7.09. 6:50 am)

Awoke with the vague taste of campfire in my mouth.

Hear the whir and thump of helicopters outside my window.

Overnight they evacuated part of Rose Valley. Glenrosa is still fully evacuated. The highway is now shut down at the Gellatly/Gosset intersection.

Starbucks was closed.

(19.7.09. 12:35pm)

Press conference on the radio. 6500 residences on alert or evac'd. 17000 (of 29000 total) residents affected.

Glenrosa fire is at 350 hectares. Looks "much more promising" this morning, slower early morning winds helped to attack some major areas.

The Mill was saved by the work of crews and staff, a small but crucial victory that is repeated as mantra by spokespeople for the forest service and RCMP.

Rose Valley fire is at 100 hectares. Rough terrain has limited heavy machinery, but helicopters and planes have been hitting it.

Terrace Mountain fire is at 100 hectares. Few structures are threatened, guards are maintained, but the focus is on the other two blazes.

Air quality is deteriorating quickly.

(19.7.09. 9:02pm)

The winds stayed steady, but much calmer than yesterday. The Glenrosa fire is now 40% contained. Rose Valley is still burning, but the growth rate has slowed. Terrace Mountain is out of control, over 850 hectares large at last estimate.

Officials have now confirmed that both the Rose Valley fire and Terrace Mountain fire were human caused. No other details given through pursed lips.

Stopped by a producer and reporter for GlobalBC while taking pictures with The Girl. Brought them up to a vantage point from last night. Maybe it will still be glowing? Tune in at 11 to find out.

(20.7.09. 1:10am)

Heard the official opposition's public safety critic on the radio, smearing the government for alleged inaction. Then heard the host absolutely tear a strip out of him for grandstanding in the face of a crisis.

Air is smokey again after a period of clearing this evening. Satellite photos on the evening news show smoke reaching down into northern Washington state.

Every time I go out to my car, it's blanketed by a thin layer of light grey ash.

The night is absolutely silent save for distant sirens bouncing off hills. Highway is deserted.

Fire guards are established. No additional structures were lost.

A decidedly good day.

(20.7.09. 6:55pm)

The morning was surprisingly clear. The smoke hung high above the valley, but the sun shone through. Breathing seems a much more pleasant experience than yesterday, although I might just be used to the smell.

The Regional District declared a state of emergency late last evening, mostly as a precautionary measure in case the fire crossed territorial boundaries.

The fires stayed virtually the same size today, but still remain largely uncontained. Evacuation notices were extended for another 72 hrs. The Top 40 station started regular programming again, with regular updates between Lady Gaga and Black Eyed Peas.

The air started to descend around dinnertime, until it was impossible to see the other side of the valley.

It's getting hotter. 32 today, 35+ for the rest of the week. Gonna be a scorcher.

(21.7.09. 9:50pm)

Major press conference tonight. Both the Glenrosa and Rose Valley fires actually shrank in size, from 400 down to 290 hectares and 150 down to 100 hectares respectively. Both are now somewhat contained. Terrace Mountain exploded, growing from 850 to over 1300 hectares, but still a ways away from any structures.

6000 of the 11000 evacuees will be allowed to return home at 8am tomorrow morning.

The banner headline on all local news sites quotes the West Kelowna Fire Chief: "We had a really good day today."

As if to celebrate, the breeze picked up a bit after dinner. It blew the hanging smoke cloud out of the valley, leaving a night that almost felt...normal.

(22.7.09. 4:19pm)

The middle school behind my house has been turned into a secondary command center for the firefighters. The parking lot is packed with dark green BC Forest Service F350s, and the soccer fields play host to choppers. They don't appear to be the bucketing ones, however; these are used for chauffeuring bigwigs like Premier Gordon Campbell around the devastation.

Some of the evacuees have reported looting in their homes upon returning.

Friends of mine returned home to find ash covering the entire interior of their house. In the 10 minutes they had to pack up and leave, they had neglected to close the windows.

The cause of all three fires is yet to be determined, but all have been confirmed to be human caused.

(22.7.09. 8:35pm)

All remaining evacuees of the Glenrosa and Rose Valley fires have been allowed to return home. Both fires were reported to be 80% contained, with the goal of 100% by this evening.

A light breeze was blowing north, which took care of any residual smoke from either of these fires. The air was the clearest it's been for a week.

The Terrace Mountain fire, however, was still out of control and beginning to encroach on some far-flung homes. At 1800 hectares and growing, this one is far from tamed. Evacuation alerts have been placed for about 2200 people, mostly because there is only one road to escape should the fire change direction quickly.

The temperature is rising. 36 today, nothing less than 33 for the next week.


(9.9.09 4:32PM)

Weeks later, the Terrace Mountain fire continues to smoulder. It flared up several times over the following weeks, causing evacuations for residents between West Kelowna and Vernon. It remains contained at 9300 hectares, and the Forest Service continues to monitor it.

Yesterday, the provincial government announced they have spent over $300 million on fires since April, with another $100 million more expected. Over 3000 fires have been battled, and 1000 firefighters are still working on blazes.

The remnants of the fires are very obvious; when the air is clear, large dark swaths of forest can be seen on the mountains. Neglected store signs still proclaim their thanks to the brave men and women who fought the blazes. The fields where helicopters came and went play host to soccer teams again, but there still hangs a sign on the fence proclaiming "DANGER" - a darkly poignant reminder of what was.

1 comment:

D J E and M Huber said...

Fantastic post. You took so many great shots of that event.