KELOWNA – Ten years ago, in the thick of B.C.'s worst firestorm, a large family gathering evacuated from Eight Mile Ranch and a group of complete strangers came together to celebrate a wedding.
Nothing was going to stop Adrianne and John Roberts from tying the knot on Aug. 23, 2003. Despite the Okanagan Mountain Park fire scaring off some of their guest list, the celebration was by no means diminished.
Melissa Johnson recalls how her sister's wedding was miraculously scrambled together in a matter of 12 hours.
“She was the bride to be and evacuated from the rehearsal dinner and from the wedding site,” Johnson says. They lost their catering staff and a few aunts and uncles decided not to stay. But some of evacuees from Joe Rich stepped in to fill the gap.
“It was wild, we had people who were evacuated with the same people coming to the wedding,” she says.
Relocated to Oyama, members of the community volunteered their help, even standing in as caterers, for what Johnson calls “the best wedding ever.”
“People all a sudden put on different hats,” she says. “It was just an attitude of letting go of everything and enjoying the moment.”
This is the story that inspired Johnson and film director Jiri Bakala to create a documentary telling the personal stories, big and small, of the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park firestorm. Over the past year, the couple have been plugging away at the project in their free time, with a non-existent budget aside from a few in-kind donations.
Their film showcases the stories of 16 different people, including former mayor Sharon Shepherd and fire chief Gerry Zimmermann, “the faces of the fire at the time,” Bakala says, to the firefighters and homeowners themselves.
“It was like making a puzzle: You've got a whole bunch of pieces scattered everywhere,” Johnson says.
'Firestorm: Out of the Ashes' premieres tomorrow at 7 p.m. for a one-time showing at the Paramount Theatre. DVDs can be purchased at the theatre and through the Kelowna Firefighters local, who were given rights to the film.
“From the onset we decided we would donate the rights to the DVDs to the firefighters, who donate on an ongoing basis to charities,” Bakala says. In exchange, the fire department helped set up interviews with their members involved in the 2003 fire. All proceeds go to their Kelowna Firefighers Charitable Society.
“I remember vividly how everybody came together to help, sharing food, toys, you name it,” Bakala recalls. “We wanted to do this as a community project as a means of giving back.”
Johnson also hopes their film encourages fire prevention and education in the Okanagan.
“It's getting that knowledge out there that we're in an interface area, and to just be mindful of your actions,” she says. “Not that it will, but it could happen here again.”
Unfortunately, Johnson says her sister's story never made it into the film, which quickly took on the stories coming forward from the public. But she's satisfied her story is reflected by so many others demonstrating the generosity of the Kelowna community in the most challenging of crises.
“As humans we're very compassionate.”
Copies of the film can be purchased at the Kelowna Firefighters Website.
To contact the reporter for this story, email Julie Whittet at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (250)718-0428.