This article appeared as a feature in BC Business magazine.
Hell on Earth
Rebuilding in the wake of Canada’s worst interface fire
Most house fires burn at a temperature somewhere between 1200 and 1500 degrees Celsius. In the Okanagan Mountain Park firestorm of last August, temperatures peaked at about 2500 degrees. Under those conditions, the fire is so intense, the heat so all-consuming, a house fire is more of a cremation. All that’s left is a fine white dust and non-combustibles like metal or brick. With all the moisture driven out, even the cement foundation is destroyed.
The Okanagan Mountain Park fire wreaked devastation such as this all along the length of Okaview Road in Kelowna’s Mission Hills sub-division. It was so total that the fire department had to count driveways to figure out how many houses had burned. At the end of each driveway, beyond the yellow police tape, remained the stumps of fire-blackened foundations. Items like the refrigerators, stoves, kitchen sinks, washer/dryers from the upper floors, all ended up in the basements, directly below the rooms where they used to sit. Even the inground septic tanks burned.
This is what Canada’s worst interface fire did when it blasted out of the bone dry Okanagan hills on August 23, and razed home after home to the dirt on Okaview Road. For the residents of Okaview Road, their street was to suffer the direct and unbridled wrath of the firestorm and would become the most devastated of any of the streets in Kelowna. Ultimately, 41 homes would be lost on Okaview Road. This story is about what it takes to rebuild a neighborhood and how the families of Okaview have begun to recover their lives.
Okaview Road winds its way along the edge of Kelowna’s upscale Mission Hills on the southern edge of town. With an average summer ‘03 price of $321,000, the area is home to a mix of working professionals and the moderately well to do. It has always been a pleasant street with large well-kept homes, shaded by large Ponderosa pine trees and bordered in places by working vineyards. Because the land drops off sharply on the north side of the street, Okaview offers a commanding view of Okanagan Lake, stretching from the floating bridge to south of Peachland.
Like many residents of Okaview Road, Tannis Bottomley was on vacation when she learned that a forest fire was threatening Kelowna. When the mother of three and a Fine Arts student at Okanagan University College heard that authorities had evacuated nearby neighborhoods, she and her family promptly returned home from Vancouver Island. Back in Kelowna they began emptying their home of furniture and personal belongings, and clearing the yard of pine needles and other combustibles. She says they were pretty confident that both of their houses – their home and a nearby rental - would be fine. But then Tannis says, “We looked up behind Kettle Valley and the fire was running down the hill towards us just like water.” They jumped in their car and got the hell out.
Also away at 414 Okaview was nearby neighbour Barb McKarl, a registered massage therapist who worked out of her home. She phoned a friend to go into her house and take out a few treasured valuables, and the physiotherapist she works with grabbed the patient records and receipt book, but everything else they left in their home. She says neither she nor her husband was overly concerned. “Neither one of us thought that there was the remotest chance that the fire would reach our house. Like I said, it would have to go through 20 houses before it reached our house.”
Such nonchalance was shared by their next door neighbour Dale Hennen of 412 Okaview, a retired Vancouver firefighter. “We were sitting on the balcony the week before we got evacuated and I said, “There’s no way that fire is going to come down here. The guys will have it knocked down before it comes anywhere near us.” he says.
Rick Baker, president and owner of the local Reimax Realty franchise, had also let his guard down. The Okaview Road resident had been on evacuation alert for a few days and had packed valuable keepsakes into his wife’s car. Because they were renovating their kitchen they decided to go out for supper. The evacuation order came while they ate and the neighbourhood was sealed down tight. “I did everything but turn cartwheels to get these guys to let me up, just to get the other vehicle out, “ he says, but to no avail.
With an evacuation order in effect, the residents fled on Thursday, August 21st as the firefighters moved in. On Friday one of those Kelowna firefighters was Chris Zimmerman. Son of Kelowna fire chief Gerry Zimmerman and a five-year veteran, Zimmerman was on Okaview Road as the winds picked up and the flames came roaring down the street. He tells an incredible tale of survival, fighting the firestorm on Okaview Road Friday night. He says, “The fire basically came in and surrounded us. It was like a vacuum in there. It was hard to breathe. Flames were all around and it was completely black over top, and there was almost like a suction in there. It was sealed off and it was kind of convulsing. It would suck the smoke down and then blow it back up. It would like inhale and then exhale and shit would go flying through the air, like big stumps, going overhead a good 200 feet in the air. They’d start houses on fire behind us. It was pretty nuts.”
As the shower of burning debris rained on rooftops, along with gusts of superheated air, the houses erupted into fire. With the wind blowing hard, Zimmerman reports the houses practically turned to ash in front of them. He says, “ Some went up so fast we didn’t have a chance. They’d be burning in a matter of seconds and there was nothing we could do but do hose down the ones beside them to try to save them. We saw some of them go in a minute, the flames would just eat it, like a tidal wave.”
Finally, besieged by blasts of heat and billows of blowing sparks Zimmerman and the other firefighters had to bug out, hunkering down in a dirt field just off Okaview. “We had no fuel in the truck, we had no water, they couldn’t get the fuel trucks up to us. The power went down and the fire went around us so basically we just had to pull into the field and say this is where we sit till the guys below us could get into us,” he says. Below them, Okaview Road lay a smoking, burning wasteland.
Evacuated residents of Okaview fanned out across the city, registering with the evacuation centre and finding shelter with friends, hotels or the stadium downtown. Says Dale Hennen, “After we got evacuated we went to the other side of the lake and had the pleasure of watching the fire destroy all the homes in this area.”
A week later, the Kelowna Fire Department held a tense meeting at the Trinity Baptist church where residents learned if their houses were still standing or not. Counsellors stood by to help with the trauma. Okaview residents were gripped by tension and uncertainty. Forty-one homes were destroyed on Okaview including the McKarl’s and the Hennen’s. Tannis Bottomley and her husband lost both their home and rental house.
Al Wahal and his wife, a retired couple from 415 Okaview, also attended the meeting. Al says he prepared his wife for the bad news. But the fire had capriciously spared their home while destroying their neighbours. “The worst thing for us was going to Trinity Church where we found out whose house was standing and whose wasn’t, and to see our neighbours totally devastated.” he says compassionately.
Similarly fortunate was Reimax president Rick Baker. “Everything to the south and to the west of us was just gone,” he says.
Janet Berg, an employee at Okanagan University College, also lost her home at 467 Okaview Road. Recollecting the hardship the fire brought down on her family in those first days, she says, “The displacement or feeling of homelessness was very stressful. Accommodations were hard to find and within the first two weeks we moved four times.” Her young son Keenan cried for his the old home and his toys she says.
While finding houses to rent (and learning that rental rates had jumped substantially), the burned out Okaview residents contacted their insurance companies to begin the long process of filing and collecting their claims. The first half of the claim process consisted of detailing the house and its construction. With the building plans from city hall, claimants sat down with an assessor or computer spreadsheet to record their home’s construction, from countertops and floor coverings, to room and window sizes. A current value to replace the home was calculated.
The second and far more arduous process was making the claim for personal goods. Insurance companies require that every item –every article of clothing, every kitchen appliance, every book and CD, every pen or pencil, - be noted for its original cost and date and place of purchase. It’s a slow and detailed process that takes weeks as claimants recollect their possessions, filling out dozens of pages recording their possessions.
Concurs massage therapist Barb McKarl, “The worst thing about it was listing the contents. You don’t sleep at night, you wake up in the middle of the night and think, “Did I remember to put that in there? Did I remember to put this in there? So other than the loss of the house itself, that is probably the worst aspect of it.” Tannis Bottomley says, “I’d be at a friend’s house and I’d say, “Can I look in your kitchen drawers.”
Says Jane of the complicated process, “I spent days walking through The Bay, writing down exact prices. The kicker is, even though you have replacement value insurance for your contents, initially it’s depreciated by up to as much as 50%. Our overall amount was depreciated by 38%, based on industry standards. A pair of shoes might be depreciated 40% but a blouse 20% So initially you receive a cash settlement. If we go out and purchase and actually replace that pair of shoes and send them the receipt that says this pair of shoes replaces the pair of shoes that listed on page 67 item 42, and this pair of shoes costs more than you advanced to me, then they will pay you the difference.”
It was in claiming for personal goods that most fire victims found themselves far short of sufficient coverage. Their actual cost of goods far exceeded their personal limit, generally in the neighbourhood of $150,000 to $200,000. Barb McKarl says, “Once you sit down and start listing every single thing you have, right down to staple removers, my cost was about double what my content coverage was.” She says, “Once you start listing everything, suddenly you realize you’re $150,000 over what you’re covered for. And you forget a bunch of stuff because it’s just impossible to list everything.”
Cautions Janet Berg, “My advice to everyone is to be prepared and take inventory of your belongings because you never know.” She says that she had to obtain two written quotes for any item over $500. “Believe me there are a lot of items over $500,” she says.
In the months following the fire, as the rest of the city returned to normalcy, Okaview Road residents found themselves struggling daily with the consequences of losing their homes. They faced the reality of not only being homeless but bereft of material belongings. Says Tannis Bottomley, “Yeah, it’s only possessions but you’ve worked your whole life for them. It’s part of your identity, it’s part of your comfort. You go to wrap a present, you don’t have tape. You go to cut something, you don’t have scissors.”
It was, the fire victims said, like waking up in somebody else’s life, in a different house with different stuff.
Pushing an overloaded shopping cart with replacement purchases through Kelowna’s Winners store, a woman remarked to Jane, “My, aren’t you having fun.” “I just growled at her, ‘This is way past the point of being fun,’” she says.
Finding a builder also proved tough in Kelowna’s overheated housing market. One builder told Bottomley he wouldn’t be able to start for at least a year and even then he couldn’t guarantee it. Barb McKarl had more luck: “Yes, we found a builder. We’ve always admired his homes. And boom. Here we are with an opportunity to have one of his homes.”
Many of the Okaview residents sought assistance from the Fire Recovery Centre, an agency created by the city to help residents deal with their many issues related to loss of their home. Through the Fire Recovery Centre, residents had access to some financial assistance and referral to helping agencies like the Red Cross or Salvation Army.
By April, Kelowna city hall had issued 28 building permits for Okaview Road. The street resounded with the sound of hammers. The fresh wooden houses rose upon their new foundations, gradually obscuring the fabulous view of lake. Homeowners who had their houses begun in the spring can hope to take possession sometime in the fall.
Insurance claims are slowly being finalized. Says retired firefighter Dale Hennen, “They like to take their time about doing things, but the numbers they came up with were pretty satisfactory.” The insurance company pays their builder directly. But a few Okaview residents who settled their insurance claims last fall and took a cash pay-out on the replacement cost of their home have been caught short by the price increase in building supplies such as rebar and OSB since then. Some are now in legal disputes with their insurance companies.
As always, builders had to submit their plans to the city for zoning and bylaw approval. Ron Matussi is the Director of Planning at Kelowna City Hall. One of his concerns for Okaview Road residents was the slope stability of their building lots. Many of the lots are situated on a break in slope, where the hill suddenly steepens to plunge down towards the lake.
Because the sites had been so extensively damaged, to the consternation of some homeowners, the city required geotechnical approval for new building plans on Okaview. Matussi says, “I know some people came back and said, “Well, I had a house there. Why are you making me spend the extra money. We do that for everyone, future owners as well. Because if we approve a building and it falls down 10 years from now, it’s still our problem.”
One of the builders putting up houses on Okaview is Shane Worman of Worman Homes, a well-known and respected local contractor. In the weeks after the fire Worman fielded dozens of calls from those who had lost their homes. He reluctantly turned some down. By November he was fully booked into the spring. “The issue with anyone who lost their house is that they want to start right away. We’re not willing to work outside of our normal trade pool so we won’t take on any extra work. We’d love to do whatever we can but there’s no point in doing a bad job,” he says.
Worman feels that ultimately in terms of house values Okaview residents may come out financially ahead because the replacement cost of the new houses far exceeds the owner’s original purchase price. The new homes should be worth several hundred thousand more he estimates.
But owning a new home that’s worth more is small comfort to the dozens of burned out Okaview Road families who lost all of their prized possessions. There’s not one that wouldn’t give up their new house to be back in their old home. Losing and rebuilding their homes has been an emotionally shattering exercise of just trying to get back to where they were. Janet Berg, who has now moved a total of eight times and anticipates one or two more, is looking forward to concluding this wrenching experience. She says. “I am so excited. I can’t wait to move in. I don’t think I will ever move again in my whole life.”