When I awoke yesterday morning my city was gone.
Ordinarily I hit the back-deck first thing after feeding the puss and putting the coffee on. The first smoke of the day (for all you unfortunate non-smokers out there) is surely one of the most agreeable, and the back-deck morning smoke is surely one of the day’s favourites.
With red Fender coffee mug in hand and nodding to the gentle streams of tobacco smoke snaking blue-steel against the greenery, it’s a psychedelic trip checking out the terroir and the start of every new day. It’s a good thing, in other words.
But yesterday, West Kelowna was gone.
So too was Mission Hill and the bell tower atop it. Pointillist traces of Sonoma Pines, a condo community extending beyond the back fence, were vaguely present through the smoke. The sun was a luminous fart and the air was a suffocating sweatsock.
A taupe torpor had taken hold of the Valley and it wasn’t looking good.
It’s fire season again. And in British Columbia there’s over 180 of them right now, with the expectation of more to come. The smoke in the Valley yesterday was not local, but caught within the reach of vast air currents ladling the drifting smoke from other parts of the province into our neck of the woods. And it’s always a little jarring for us.
After all, pretty much every year since the dramatic Okanagan Mountain Fire of 2003 there have been fires somewhere in the Okanagan. Some of them have been pretty intense while others, like last week’s flare up in the Joe Rich area, have been nervous-making and upsetting for those needing to evacuate, but not necessarily costly in terms of lost homes, pets and possessions.
We all realize that forest wildfires are a part of nature’s cyclical self-management; but we cannot be oblivious to human interference with these cycles. Too many wildfires are discovered to have been the results of careless human self-management.
Of course, everybody pays when it comes to the aftermath of a forest fire. Beyond the obvious costs via insurance claims and fire-management fees, the human cost is paid in terms of emotional strain and a change in sensibilities when it is realized that we are indeed intimately connected to the landscapes we occupy and that the relational symbiosis is an alarmingly tenuous state. Fragile. So easily scorched with a smoke, carelessly tossed.
Fire is a threat that operates at a subconscious, primal-fear level. Its ur-historical “discovery,” the gift of Prometheus’ theft, has surely sparked the wonder of human consciousness from the beginning. Handled with care its transformative capabilities have built civilizations and delivered toothsome tacos or their equivalent for millennia.
But left to rage uncontrollably within reach of our homes and businesses, a community can panic and folks can feel a psychic meltdown coming on.
I’m remembering through the smoke today, the week-long prelude to the fire of 2003. Tens of thousands were evacuated from the Kelowna Mission and the eastern slopes to the north, my parents included.
A fire begun by lightning strike well south of the city inched its way day-after-day that August, closer by-the-hour to the appearance of residences along the deep south lakeshore. From my in-laws’ deck we watched nightly the orange arc of a fire fed by unfortunate winds and bad luck. Daily waterbombings seemed futile.
When the final evacuation alert came to my parents‘ front porch in Kelowna, they were hurriedly gathering photo albums, computers, handfuls of my father’s books and a few keepsakes. Despite the fact that the fire was just a couple canyons away, they figured they’d be alright. They wouldn’t lose their house and glorious garden.
Just before they put the car in reverse to drive off to my aunt’s place in Peachland (where for the next three days they would watch in horror from the shore opposite their neighbourhood under threat), my Dad realized he’d forgotten something. He ran into the house and emerged with his old Hohner harmonica that he played Lilli Marlene and Red River Valley on. He tossed it into the front seat to Mum, and then turned around and went back to the garage.
Black particulate and red-hot embers were already beginning to hit the driveway when Dad came out to quickly sweep the drive before setting off for the Westside. As he put it the day after their house was gone and we were commiserating at my birthday dinner, “Jeff, I was sure we’d be going back.”
The fire of 2003 did come to an end, of course. They always do. And our family and thousands of others came to understand a new normal in the central Okanagan. For a brief moment, the lake-divided city seemed like a real community, and not a clique-fragmented tourist town. The fear of oblivion vulcanized the community into a group of people who saw in one another their keepers. It was somehow ennobling, if fleeting.
Fire reveals so much of our character and our concerns and desires. It also can’t help but illuminate too how fragile it is, our hold on what we think is ours. Fire reminds us again, that we’re not masters of the universe, and our greatest monuments and our most prized-possessions can fall away from us in a flash of lightning and the candling of our Canadian bush.
— Jeffrey Loewen is a Kelowna-based writer to plays music by day and politics by night