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Column: Wildfires taking shine off Okanagan lifestyle

Surge of people moving to Okanagan may get smoked out
Barry Gerding.

As someone who has lived in Kelowna for the past 23 years, I can say without any hesitation, that I am tired of dealing with wildfires.

Back in the day when I was cutting my teeth as a journalist in the 1980s in northwest B.C., we used to call them forest fires, where 20,000 hectares in size was a big deal.

Since then, I have witnessed monumental community efforts during my time, particularly in the Okanagan, to react to what we now refer to as wildfires, beginning with the Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire in 2003, and witnessed the toll it takes.

That toll weighs heavily on the firefighters, homeowners who lose their homes, those who face evacuation, those who see their homes saved but facing damage repairs, the environment, wildlife, and yes, even the local media called upon to keep their readers informed about an event that requires constant updates.

In a recent interview I had with Gerry Zimmermann, I asked him if he still thinks about the 2003 fire today that he faced as the Kelowna fire chief at the time.

“Every day,” was his response.

The Grouse Complex wildfire was a triggering moment for many with memories of 2003, which means those memories are never far away from our thoughts.

I had a conversation with my sister recently, talking about her internal debate about whether or not she wants to move from the Lower Mainland to Kelowna.

What has now become a decision-breaker for her to not make the move is having to deal with wildfires.

It makes me wonder if the popularity of Kelowna, and the Okanagan in general, as a retirement or relocation destination, will start to wane because of the wildfire threat.

While we all understand that firestorms can speed ahead at a rapid pace when fueled by gusting winds, the idea of the embers from the McDougall Creek blaze jumping Okanagan Lake and lighting spotfires in Kelowna and Lake Country seems like a game changer.

But the question for all of us then becomes to whom do you pose the ‘Do something about this’ concern?

Changes to our weather are laying the groundwork for these fires globally. While politicians debate why climate change is occurring to avoid difficult decisions, the reality for the rest of us is changes are taking place and we are forced to adapt.

It’s all great to dream about colonizing the moon or Mars one day, but just perhaps we might want to save our own planet before we set out to destroy somewhere else.

Here in B.C., the province will probably spend north of $500 million this year on its firefighting budget. So there is no lack of commitment there.

While the BC Wildfire Service is among the best tacticians in the world at fighting these wildfires, they can’t save every home, or control outbreaks in remote or topography-challenging areas.

Here in the Okanagan, we have now seen severe losses in the Mission, Lake Country, West Kelowna and the North Westside over the last two decades.

Some of it perhaps is ignorance, someone not properly putting out a campsite fire or tossing a cigarette butt out their vehicle window, but sometimes it’s simply Mother Nature’s most lethal weapon, lightning strikes, which torch up dry forests. And what policy can government invoke to stop that?

It falls on all of us collectively to be vigilant, to be FireSmart around our properties, to recreate in the outdoors in a safe manner, but that all too can become draining and weary to maintain year after year.

These latest rounds of fires will fall into history like those before them, forgotten until memories from past wildfire experiences are triggered again by the next one to come along.

Summer in the Okanagan now is about being on the lookout for signs of smoke billowing from the forests around us, and then wondering what that initial puff of smoke will turn into.

The question becomes is there room in the Okanagan lifestyle to accommodate the impact of wildfires in the minds of people who have been flocking here from across Canada?

Even in California, people are leaving that wildfire-plagued state in droves.

Is our turn coming to start feeling that same migration of people moving elsewhere?

Barry Gerding

About the Author: Barry Gerding

Senior regional reporter for Black Press Media in the Okanagan. I have been a journalist in the B.C. community newspaper field for 37 years...
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