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Kelowna News

MCDONALD: If the call came to flee a wildfire, would you be ready?

July 13, 2017 - 12:00 PM


I was well into my second glass of wine sitting on the deck on my day off when the call came from my boss — this is it, this is the big one.

A wildfire was already growing on the tinder dry mountainside above Glenrosa and Gorman Bros. Mill, he shouted into the phone. Get going!

I was at first reluctant to go — we had jumped on a false alarm the day before in the same area — but this is what the job was all about and I was out the door with my crash kit in less than five minutes.

By time I got to Westbank there was already a mile-long traffic jam of locals desperately trying mostly in vain to get through the RCMP check point on the Glenrosa off ramp.

How I got to my position behind Gorman Bros. mill where I took the photo you see below is another story involving a load of chutzpah and the deliberate flanking of the police control point.

However within a minute of walking around the corner, with Westside Fire Rescue still unreeling their hoses, I was stunned to watch a wall of fire roll down the hill and smack into a large house, which turned out to be the home of mill president Ron Gorman.

I began snapping off shots as firefighters fought desperately to save the home.

Gorman and familly had already evacuated so I was stunned again when a couple of senior citizens lurched out onto the lawn of what I had assumed was an empty house, clutching what they could grab to their chests.

It wasn’t much.

I rattled off a few more shots of them fleeing then turned my attention back to what I thought was the more interesting story — firefighters doing what they do under extreme circumstances.

I’m at best a meatball photographer — F8 and be there — so it took a better eye than mine to pluck out the real story from the 250 photos I shot that day.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the cutline under this photo would stress the importance during fire season of being ready to go at a moments notice.

Some call it a grab-and-go bag — I call it the split kit — but the intent is the same; keep handy a box or bag of the essentials, those things you can’t live without, ready to dump in the car and run.

My own split kit is a pair of old Rubbermaid containers with nothing more in them than silly stuff from childhood onward — old scrapbooks, concert ticket stubs and such — but I would be crushed to lose them.

I don’t bother much with “important papers” as most of those — mortgages, wills and so on — are registered or held somewhere else.

Indeed Gorman himself later lamented grabbing what he thought were valuable papers only to leave behind irreplaceable family mementos.

But it doesn’t really matter what you put in your kit, as long as you build it and store it near the front door during fire season (and depending on where you are, flood season too).

And if you think because you live well away from the forests you are immune to wildfire danger, think again.

On Firestorm Friday, during the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire, officials at one point were considering creating a fire break by blowing up houses in the lower Mission.

With fierce winds whipping the blaze across the South Slopes, the fear was the flames would jump into the closely packed houses and burn all the way to downtown Kelowna.

Of course, there is no way to fit everything you value into an old suitcase so some hard decisions have to be made (although they are still decisions you would rather make without a two-minute evacuation notice). And you can’t always live your life like disaster is imminent so it’s good to put the kit away when the season is over.

One strike against the split kit is that all your memories end up stagnating in a box, never much to be seen again. The reality is most of those mementos end up in boxes and drawers anyway, just scattered all over the house and impossible to gather up on short notice.

My suggestions is to pick a significant date (the Glenrosa fire was July 18, 2009) and hold a nostalgia party where the family opens up their kits and has a stroll down memory lane.

You can use the occasion to add new memories and maybe cull some old ones. (The Grade 3 picture my son gave me of himself with pennies and coloured feathers glued to it is in this year, the matchbook from the cheesy West Hollywood lounge I drank at in 1983 is out.)

This story has a happy ending despite them ending up as the poster children for disaster grab-and-go bags. The house the couple fled was spared from the flames although they admitted later they were not prepared for the sudden evacuation and would have lost almost everything if their house had burned.

All this happened in 2009, but with wildfires again burning across the province, it's a timeless message.

Get the message. Get a box.

— 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

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