Photo: My two baby boys in September 2003 in the Chariot Carrier used to evacuate them from the Okanagan Mountain Park fire on August 26, 2003.
What was your best gift ever? This question was posed on a website recently and got me thinking. So I travelled back in time...about six and a half years...to think about my family's escape from the Okanagan Mountain Park fire. Here is a submission I made to a book about the fire. My submission was based on email records that I sent to friends and family during the event. The book was published without my story, but they named a chapter after it called "Getting Out". When I introduced myself to the editors at their book signing I was invited to, they remembered they accidentally forgot to include my story. The Kelowna Museum requested the story for their archives, and in there it sits. There is a fire museum now, so I assume it is in there. I've edited it slightly for clarity. When you've read it, please let me know about the best gift you have ever received.
Okanagan Mountain Park Fire - Kelowna, B.C. Canada - August 26, 2003 11:55AM
I was at a Jaycee [Okanagan Junior Chamber International] meeting Thursday night (August 21, 2003) until around 10:00 p.m. and when driving home I saw flames above our home. Stuck in a traffic jam, I turned the radio on to hear that our area, (Drummond Court just off of Barnaby Road) which was not even on evacuation alert, was now on evacuation order. This was distressing news as my two babies (3 month old Quinn and two and a half year old Soleil), my mother visiting from Calgary, and husband were home with no reliable vehicle, waiting for me to return so they could evacuate. (Our other vehicle parked at home was nearly out of gas.)
I could see a wall of flames to the right of our home and above our home in spots we had not seen all week and we had been monitoring the fire very carefully up until that point. That day, there was so much smoke, no flames could be seen, but the fire had sneaked up on us and there it was appearing to be licking at our back doorstep. Apparently, the wind had come up and pushed the fire into our area.
Rather than be caught in fire or a traffic jam [and the fact I was going into shock], I pulled the truck over and borrowed a cell phone (that of Mike and *Sharon Shepherd, a Kelowna City Councillor) I called home and spoke to my husband and we decided that I would stay put and wait at the safety spot as traffic out of our home area was bumper to bumper. My husband packed our two babies into the Chariot (a double wide stroller we pull behind our bikes) and got my mother (61 years old and in need of a hip replacement) and himself onto our bikes. He put our two dogs on leash and put cat food and water on our porch for our Kitty (that’s our cat’s name) and put her outside. They left everything my husband had packed since 8:30 pm at our home (including 2 computer hard drives for our business, and everything else we own).
[*Side note: Sharon is now Kelowna's Mayor. Side note: Shawn told me later that while he was packing the boys up, there were hot pine tree needles falling onto his arms. Mom said she rode the bike around the cul-de-sac to remember how to ride one again. In terms of possessions, Shawn remembered the baby car seat which he packed on top of the Chariot.]
They rode their bikes down about 8 KM (to Sarsons and Lakeshore) to meet me. My husband and I stayed in contact by cellphone as they rode very slowly as our dog Julie on lead is quite out of shape and our other dog slightly lame from a tear in her pad from our mountain biking in the hills where the fire now burned the Monday before.
Boy was I happy to be reunited with them all. We were reunited around 11:30 p.m. so it was about one and a half hours between the time that I heard about the evacuation until we saw each other. This was three and a half hours after the original evacuation order came in at 8:00 p.m.
Luckily, the baby was asleep so they did not have to contend with his crying for mama's milk. (They packed him last). While waiting for them, I believe I went into shock as my mouth was dry and I began to get cold and shake. A nice man gave me a glass of water and a warm coat and that really helped.
So here we are, with basically the clothing on our backs, safe in Armstrong at Shawn's parent’s home. We know that the area around our home has been hit very hard by the fire. We will get to see aerial photos on a website called Castanet today if lucky to see if our home was burnt. Pray it wasn't.
Update: Tuesday, August 26, 2003
We got to see our home yesterday. We were turned away at one checkpoint saying we couldn't get a pass in, but went to a different checkpoint a few hours later and they let us through. There was a sprinkler on our roof that the firefighters had put there. We spoke to a search and rescue fellow monitoring our neighbourhood and he happens to be a neighbour too. He said he worked on the hose 2 hours fighting fire. He looked very very tired, but said he wasn't going without a fight. We were lucky to get in and collect our family heirlooms and the hard drives for our business. We also collected our Kitty who was doing actually very well, but smelled of smoke. We had just over one hour to collect the things most dear to us and leave again. Upon leaving we were touched when we saw "Edmonton PPCLU" written in the dust on the hood of our little red car that we left behind. It was a note from the Edmonton Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry Unit that must have been fighting our fire or patrolling our area.
Update: 2:00 a.m. Saturday, August 30, 2003
We were taken off evacuation order Wednesday, August 27 and returned home Thursday, August 28. We are still on evacuation alert and have to be ready to leave within 1 hour. The gas is off. Everything is quite dusty and smoky smelling in the house. The front and back deck has ash and burnt leaves and pine needles everywhere. The grass and flowers are a little dry from not being watered for a week. Other than that, the home is in great shape. We are truly grateful to be home, but the fire is still burning only a few kilometers from our house. It is difficult to sleep at night, but we are one of the lucky ones as our home and neighborhood is still standing. I grieve for the people who lost their homes and for the forest where we used to mountain bike as it is now black and charred.
Our hearts are with everyone who has lost their home or been displaced. Even for those who did not lose their homes, this has been a terrible, terrible experience. I'm so proud to be a part of our community who cares so much. Thank you to the volunteers and firefighters and army and to everyone who has offered help or concern.
Update December 28, 2010
Two years after the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire in Kelowna, Shawn and I moved to Vernon and we've been living happily here ever since. I found the memory of the fire traumatic every time I looked up into the charred hills of the Upper Mission area of Kelowna, so it was a relief to relocate.
When I was reunited with my mom, husband, kids and dogs all safe and sound that night of August 26, 2003 it was the best gift ever. Material possessions can be replaced, life can't. 130 homes were lost in that fire. I remember seeing a friend of mine at a meeting afterwards. From across the room, I could tell he lost his home. His face looked so different. Exhausted. Stressed. Almost grey. I'll never forget it.
A lot of people lost, but many of us gained a gift. We got to see how important we are to each other in our family....how important life is. We also learned about the power of a strong, united community and the giving spirit of volunteers.
I'm truly grateful to have my loved ones close to me this holiday season.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to you and yours.
Thanks for reading,