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McDONALD: History shows, if you let your (fire) guard down too soon, you will get burned

August 17, 2017 - 12:17 PM

OPINION


At least part of me wasn’t sure I should write this, given what happened last time.

It was August 15, 2003 and like many Thursdays before it, I was scratching around for a column idea.

The summer newsroom doldrums had long settled in and there was nothing much to write about.

Well, nothing much except the ongoing fire season, one of the worst in memory. A devastating fire season across the province had seen multiple evacuations as wildfires threatened one community after another. Sound familiar?

B.C.’s backwoods, the front woods, the side woods, all were tinder dry. Campfires had been long since banned. Forget public shaming on nascent social media, anyone tossing a cigarette butt out a car window could expect a lynch mob if caught.

With that in mind (and a press release from the province urging continued vigilance) I wrote my column warning the danger was far from over and indeed, half the fire season still stood before us.

It was published the next day with my smiling face pasted right over it. Sometime that night, the Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire started with a lightning strike.

Now I’m certainly not claiming any prescience, as was made clear by my subsequent prediction to a very concerned friend who lived in the Mission — the fire was far from Kelowna and would never be allowed to reach the city.

We all know what happened next. The fire burned north, wavered a bit, before turning again and lunging at Kelowna, taking out 239 homes and forcing half the city to evacuate (my friend was one of them).

Besides forever shattering my illusion that wildfires were some other city’s problem, it also destroyed my notion of what humans can and can’t do in the face of a large wildfire on the move. The reality? Not much except get the hell out of the way.

With 2017 a startling replay of 2003 (and the worst fire season on record as measured by hectares burned) I don’t think it’s a message that can be overstated.

After six weeks of this, we still have six more and now, more than ever we need to remain vigilant and avoid fire ban fatigue.

After weeks of smokey skies, chattering helicopters and newscasts full of burning forests, it’s only human for the message to lose some impact. I mean, how many images of roaring flames and fleeing survivors can you look at before becoming numb to the whole thing?

I saw it in 2003 when the weather changed after weeks of relentless heat. Summer was drawing to a close, the new school year beckoned. Even the reporters I was working with, having spent weeks on fire watch, had begun to look ahead at the prospect of some decent stories as life returned to normal. People were tuning out.

But the good folks at B.C. Wildfire will be the first to underscore the message. The danger wasn't over in 2003 and it's not over in 2017 so please, please, please, don’t let your guard down.

Don't let last weekend's brief flirtation with rain lull you into a false sense of security. That skiff of rain did nothing to change the extremely dry forests and grasslands and served only to make people like you and me think the danger has passed.

It has not and in some ways may be growing. With holiday season over, increased commercial activity boosts the chances of a human-caused fire. And the change to more volatile weather can produce more of the dreaded dry lightning with accompanying winds.

This column is not meant to be an I-told-you-so nor do I believe I tempt fate by writing (again) about this subject. The sad fact, then as now, is there is still a great chance of a large interface fire breaking out sometime between now and the end of the current fire season.

The only bad luck about it is if it happens near your community.

— John McDonald is a long-time reporter, editor and photographer from the Central Okanagan with a strong curiosity about local affairs. You can reach him at jmcdonald@infonews.ca.


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