Fire risk keeps Kelowna's crown jewel park closed to cars

FILE PHOTO - Kelowna Fire Department responds to a grass fire in Kelowna's Knox Mountain Park on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. The road to the top of the mountain in the park will remain closed until further notice because of the fire risk.

KELOWNA - It hasn’t been a particularly hot summer but the road to the top of Knox Mountain Park will remain closed because of fire risk.

The fire danger rating remains extreme and parks supervisor Ian Wilson says the 310-hectare park is very dry after the first stretch this summer without any rain.

“I think people are used to the road being closed in August. This year we were debating it because it’s been cooler and wetter up until recently,” Wilson says. “But it’s been hot and dry since the fire. It’s a bit of a judgement call but with the fire we want to err on the side of caution.”

His concern is real, given Knox Mountain Park is Kelowna’s largest urban park and is relatively unique for its location so close to a downtown urban centre.

“It reminds me of Stanley Park. It’s a large natural park close to downtown. It’s a bit unusual,” Wilson says.

It’s value as a park cannot be estimated, Wilson says, given the intangibles and benefit to the public such a park offers.

“Having those kinds of protected green spaces is invaluable,” Wilson says. “I know economists have tried to come up with a template to value parks like that. There’s a lot of ways to value it.”

It’s appeal as an urban park is undeniable. It fronts on 1,400 metres of Okanagan Lake, rising 300 metres to the summit of Knox Mountain.

It has it’s own body of water, Kathleen Lake on the east side of the park and is habitat to a variety of plants and animals.

Vehicle counters on the road show 400 vehicles a day climb to the first look out and half of those venture further up to the top. It’s those people who will be denied as vehicles are still allowed up to the lower look out.

With so many access points, it’s impossible to calculate precisely how many people use the park annually, but Wilson says early pedestrian counts on the popular Apex trail show about 30,000 people a year are making the tough little hike to the first look out.

Wilson says its vehicles and their exhaust pipes that are the chief concern for the start of a wildfire and it’s the park’s proximity to several residential subdivisions that could potentially turn it into a disaster if a wildfire were to get away.

“We don’t want to have to evacuate a bunch of people from the top of the mountain if something happens,” Wilson adds.

Knox Mountain Park has had extensive fuel load mitigation over the last decade with the removal of thousands of trees but Wilson says even annual maintainance on top of that doesn’t remove the fire risk.

Only cooler, wetter weather would convince him to reopen the park in the week to come and there’s little of that in the forecast.

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