‘Used to be the thing of legend’: Lessons to be learned from McDougall Creek wildfire


The fire that gripped West Kelowna, B.C., in August was one of the worst in the Okanagan’s history. Days of blazing sun combined with powerful dry winds threw three neighbouring cities into unprecedented crisis within hours of the first flames being sparked.

Hundreds of homes were lost and lives forever changed in the days that followed, and for West Kelowna fire Chief Jason Brolund, all the fraught moments, sleepless nights and eventual triumphs are framed by one memory.

“I will never, ever forget being in the most affected neighbourhoods, 4 a.m., fire all around us, and watching the men and women who had come together to fight this fire, digging in and not letting go and what that meant for that neighbourhood but also what it meant for our community,” Brolund said in an interview one month after the fire sparked.

That “tiny” early morning firefight in Rose Valley was won but it was more than that. It offered a glimpse into the enduring community spirit that would eventually overcome the worst of the crisis and that overwhelms Brolund still.

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Click to play video: 'One month after the McDougall Creek fire'

One month after the McDougall Creek fire

It was a firefight that was characterized as hellish and Armageddon-like as it unfolded and even in the rearview mirror, Brolund stands by that description.

“Someone told me that night that it was like fighting 100 years of fire all at once, and it really was,” he said.

“A lot of firefighters will not see that much fire in an entire career and we had the unfortunate experience of seeing, like, all happen right in front of us all at once.”

Nobody died or was even seriously injured in the fire and that is shocking to Brolund, who said he doesn’t know how they didn’t lose people.

“We continue to drive to these neighbourhoods and we continue to work hard to get people back home and back to normal,” Brolund said.

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“It was awful already and we’re still sickened by the loss in our community but it’s just it’s overwhelming how much worse it could have been, and how much worse other fire chiefs and other fire departments have experienced it.”

Click to play video: 'More West Kelowna residents returning home after McDougall Creek wildfire'

More West Kelowna residents returning home after McDougall Creek wildfire

It’s thoughts of that kind that keep coming for Brolund and he knows that the full weight of the days that passed has yet to settle on his, and the rest of the department’s, shoulders.

“Our fire department, the people here, we’re still processing it, honestly,” he said.

“It’s only in the last week or so that a lot of us are getting time to not be here and to be with our families. I think in some cases, those low points are still to come.”

There are lessons for the greater community as well.

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“‘Fires of this kind used to be the thing of legend and now, I’ve experienced two of them in my career, and there’s no reason why, and it’s scary to think that we won’t have a third,” he said.

“Taking the things that we’re doing but making them work on a really large scale, I think, is probably going to be one of the bigger outcomes.”

Click to play video: 'Controlled burn above West Kelowna sparks panic on social media'

Controlled burn above West Kelowna sparks panic on social media

Cities need more fire breaks, and they need to be able to draw more resources together, Brolund said.

“We need to be able to look at how we attack these fires at night, for example, from the air and we need more resources in order to prepare for them,” he said.

West Kelowna, he said, has pursued every single dollar of grant funding that’s available for the fire-safe program, Fire Smart, but accessing it is an onerous process.

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“We spend a lot of time just getting the money, not actually doing the work,” he said.

“And we could use 10 times the money that we get to put it to work in our community, and we’ve already had a fire.

“I think about those places that haven’t and we’re really, really going to have to focus on that.”

Around 200 properties are believed to have been destroyed by wildfire in the West Kelowna and Kelowna area, and as of Monday, nearly 400 properties remained under evacuation orders in the area.

“(The fire) is still classified as out of control but we’re feeling pretty comfortable with it,” Evan Lizotte of BC Wildfire said, noting that there’s mopping up and hot spot identification ongoing.

When the fire will change in status to held, however, remains to be seen.

The McDougall Creek wildfire was last mapped at just under 14,000 hectares and remains listed as out of control.



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