The Okanagan Mountain Park fire wreaked hell and devastation along the length of Okaview Road.
Most house fires burn at a temperature between 1,200 and 1,500 degrees Celsius. In the Okanagan Mountain Park firestorm of last August, temperatures peaked at about 2,500 degrees. Under those conditions the fire is so intense, the heat so all-consuming, that a house fire is more of a cremation. All that’s left is fine white dust and non-combustibles such as metal or brick. With all the moisture driven out, even the cement foundation is destroyed. The Okanagan Mountain Park fire wreaked devastation like this 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, sat the stumps of fire-blackened foundations. 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 in-ground 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 families of Okaview Road, their street was to suffer the direct and unbridled wrath of the firestorm to 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 happens when a fire rages into the ‘interface’ – where houses and forest intermingle – and about the long road to recovery by one family from Okaview Road. Okaview Road winds its way along the edge of Kelowna’s upscale Mission Hills on the southern edge of town. With an average house price of $321,000 in the summer of 2003, 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 mature 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. At first, the fire sparked by lightning on the morning of Saturday, August 16 in the far reaches of Okanagan Mountain Park wasn’t a concern. It was a small fire many kilometres away and fire crews were on the scene. But by Monday, just two days later, things had changed. The fire now belched a thick, black volcano-like column of smoke, clawing its way closer. From her backyard at 467 Okaview Road, Janet Berg, 40, watched the encroaching fire with growing alarm. During the smoky, grey days, with the ash falling thickly, there was little for her or her husband Chris to see. But at night the southern sky was illuminated with a fierce red glow. The Bergs and their two young children, Kaelen and Keenen, shared their four-bedroom 4,065-square-foot walk-in rancher with Janet’s mum. After eight years in the home, the Bergs still enjoyed the house, its view of the lake and the close proximity of the woods. Like their neighbors, they never considered a forest fire a realistic threat to their home. On Thursday, August 21, the Bergs and others received their evacuation notices. “Pack light. You’ll just be gone a few days,” said the man who banged on their door to deliver the evacuation notice. “So we did,” says Janet. “But at the last minute we thought, ‘What the heck, let’s pack a suitcase each.’ ” They grabbed some pictures of the kids, but save for the suitcases, everything else – every single thing – was left behind. As the Bergs were packing, their neighbor came over to tell them they had to leave right away. “He was frantic. You could hear it in his voice and see it in his actions,” says Janet. Emotions were running high that night, but what happened next still leaves Chris angry and dismayed. Chris, 44, a shipping manager at a Kelowna metal-manufacturing plant, was loath to leave his custom truck behind. A 1981 GMC shortbox stepside with 40-inch tires, a small-bore 400-cubic-inch engine and factory bucket seats, Chris had custom ordered the truck from the factory. It was painted a lustrous raspberry pearl with a chrome roll bar, chrome differential cover, chrome push bars. “Everything was chrome,” says Chris. As a young man, the truck had been the love of his life. Before his mum passed away she told him, “Don’t sell the truck, because you’ll never be happy with anything else.” Because the truck was not street legal in B.C. and uninsured, when the evacuation order came Chris called a tow truck to come and get it. Janet and the kids left and he waited; when the tow truck didn’t show, he called the company, only to find that the police weren’t allowing anyone into the neighborhood. Desperate to get his truck out, Chris called 911. He exchanged words with the 911 operator who supposedly asked him: “What means more to you? Your truck or your life?” “Well, I said ‘My truck’ because I was mad at them,” says Chris. A few minutes later, two squad cars showed up and four police officers piled out. According to Chris, the officers pushed him around, asked why he was still there and angrily ordered him out. Reluctantly he left his truck behind and drove out in the family van packed with personal belongings. When he was later to see the burnt-out remains, the heat of the firestorm had melted the steel frame to the point where the truck frame had actually drooped to the ground in the middle. “I cried a little bit,” says Chris. With the evacuation order in effect, the Bergs and other area residents fled and the firefighters moved in. Chris Zimmerman was one of the Kelowna firefighters on-site that Friday night. Son of Kelowna fire chief Gerry Zimmerman and a five-year veteran, Zimmerman was on Okaview Road as the winds picked up and the monster came roaring down at them. “The fire basically came in and surrounded us,” says Zimmerman. “It was like a vacuum in there. It was hard to breathe. Flames were all around and it was completely black over top. 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.” The burning debris rained on rooftops, gusts of superheated air stoked the flames and the houses erupted. With the wind blowing hard, Zimmerman says houses practically turned to ash in front of them: “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 to 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 the furnace of heat and billowing 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.” Zimmerman shakes his head. “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 ’til the guys below us could get in to us.” Below them, Okaview Road was a smoking, burning wasteland. The firestorm on that hot August night had consumed 238 houses in Kelowna. Of these, 41 were on Okaview Road, an astonishing number of houses for just one street to lose. Unaware of what was happening behind them, evacuated residents of Okaview fanned out across the city, registering first with the evacuation centre and then finding shelter with friends, in hotels or in the stadium downtown. One man offered to let the Bergs use his backyard trailer. But the trailer lacked water or power. For the Bergs this was the first of many moves. “The displacement or feeling of homelessness was very stressful,” says Janet. “Accommodations were hard to find and within the first two weeks we moved four times.” Her young son Keenen cried for his old home and toys. [pagebreak] Many of the victims sought assistance from the Fire Recovery Centre, an agency created by the City of Kelowna to help residents deal with the many issues related to the loss of their homes. Through the Fire Recovery Centre, residents had access to some financial assistance and referrals to helping agencies such as the Red Cross or Salvation Army. The Bergs, for example, received food vouchers and toiletry supplies such as shampoo and toothbrushes to get them through the first days.
Once the worst of it was over, the following week the Kelowna Fire Department held a tense meeting at the Trinity Baptist Church where residents learned whether their homes were still standing. Counselors stood by to help with the trauma. As the homeowners filed in, filled with uncertainty and gripped with dread, they gave their names and were directed to sit in separate small groups. It turned out that these groups comprised those who had lost their homes, and those who hadn’t. The Bergs were seated with three of their neighbors and were handed a sheet listing the burned-out homes. On that list was 467 Okaview Road. “We always hoped that it wasn’t actually gone,” says Janet. “It doesn’t hit you until you’ve been told.” As the rest of the city returned to normalcy in the months following the fire, the fire victims struggled with the daily consequences of losing their homes and the reality of being left bereft of material belongings. “Yeah, it’s only possessions but you’ve worked your whole life for them,” said one woman. “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 agreed, like waking up in somebody else’s life. The burned-out residents now embarked on putting their lives back together albeit in different surroundings with different stuff. While finding a place to rent (local rental rates jumped substantially in response to the demand), the Bergs and the others immediately contacted their insurance companies and began the long process of filing and collecting claims. The first half of the claim process involved detailing everything about the house and its construction. Armed with the original building plans unearthed at city hall (the Bergs’ were unavailable so they had to draw out the home from memory), 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 – to calculate the vanished home’s current replacement value. The second and far more arduous process was preparing the claim for personal goods. This process should serve as a warning to the rest of us. Insurance companies require that every item – every article of clothing, every kitchen appliance, every book and CD, every pen or pencil – be listed at its original cost, and its date and place of purchase. It’s a slow and detailed process that takes weeks of frustration as claimants (their original receipts and records now ashes) try to recall what they once owned. With some policies, items listed as worth more than $500 must be backed by two written quotes. “It was the worst nightmare,” says Janet. Barb McKarl was another burned-out Okaview resident. As a massage therapist who worked out of her home, McKarl lost not only her house but her office too: “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.” “I spent days walking through The Bay writing down exact prices,” said another Okaview fire victim, one of many who were frustrated and worn down by the complex and time-consuming task of making their claims for personal goods. Even with replacement value insurance, depending on the insurance company, claimants received only an initial cash settlement based on the industry-determined depreciated value of the item. For example, shoes were depreciated by 40 per cent; you would only receive $60 for a $100 pair of shoes. To receive the full amount, you would have to buy the item and submit the receipt, claiming the item corresponded to line 76 of page 42 of your statement of claim. Until the insurance company refunded you the difference, you’re out the $40. Or if you’ve reached your personal goods claim maximum, you never will see that $40. Most fire victims quickly discovered that their coverage for personal goods was insufficient; the actual value of their vanished chattels far exceeded the insurance policy’s limit (generally $150,000 to $200,000). “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,” notes Barb McKarl. “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.” The Bergs, however, have been pleased with their coverage. They listed their lost goods and as they’ve repurchased them, sent the receipts to the insurance company, which reimbursed them the following month. However, Janet warns that once a line on the claim is closed, that’s it. Fortunately their insurance company warned them about that beforehand. For example, if you listed three filing cabinets and then submitted a receipt for just one, don’t bother submitting receipts for two more later. The stress and worry brought about by claiming their personal goods was a common thread to all those who lost their homes. Janet Berg provides this advice based on her experience: “Be prepared and take inventory of your belongings because you never know.” While the insurance process was underway, residents needed to figure out how, where and whether to rebuild. Finding a builder proved tough for many in Kelowna’s overheated housing market. One overbooked builder told residents he wouldn’t be able to start on their new home for at least a year and even then he couldn’t guarantee a firm start date. Shane Worman, principal of Worman Homes, is one of the builders putting up houses on Okaview. As a well-known and respected local contractor, Worman fielded dozens of calls in the weeks after the fire. He reluctantly turned some down: “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.” For those who could wait, by November Worman was fully booked into the spring. In terms of house values, he also feels that ultimately the Okaview residents may emerge financially ahead as the replacement cost of the new houses far exceeds the owner’s original purchase price. As well, a brand-new home is worth more than one 30 years old. The new homes could be worth several hundred thousand more, he estimates. By April 2004 Kelowna city hall had issued 28 building permits for Okaview Road. The street now resounds with the staccato whap! whap! of nail guns as fresh wooden houses rise on new foundations, gradually re-obscuring the fabulous view of the lake. Homeowners who began construction in the spring hope to take possession sometime in the fall. Meanwhile, still in limbo as they wait for their houses to be built and insurance claims to be settled, they’ve held off purchasing much of their furniture and personal belongings. The fire has left other problems. As always, builders must submit their plans to the city for zoning and bylaw approval. When the Okaview plans came in, Ron Matussi, director of planning at Kelowna City Hall, had a concern: slope stability of the building lots. Many of the Okaview lots are situated on a ‘break-in’ slope, where the hill abruptly steepens to plunge down to the lake. Because the sites had been damaged so extensively, the city required geotechnical approval for the new building plans. [pagebreak] Matussi says some homeowners were unhappy. “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 building and it falls down 10 years from now, it’s still our problem.” Janet and Chris Berg have been fortunate. Their insurance claim and house construction have gone smoothly. They contracted with Dilworth Homes, a major Kelowna builder and development firm. Dilworth usually only builds on its own property, but Janet says, “They had a meeting and said, ‘Yeah, we will help out some fire victims.’ ” Dilworth started building the Bergs’ home in February and the family hopes to take possession this summer. In the months after the fire, a few Okaview residents settled their insurance claims quickly and took a cash payout on the replacement cost of their home. They have since been caught short by the subsequent dramatic price increase in building supplies such as rebar and plywood. Janet says she’s also heard the most complaints about insurance issues from those whose homes were damaged but not destroyed by the fire. Fortunately, getting new house insurance for the Bergs or anyone else affected by the fire won’t be an issue. Says Steve Pavelich, manager of Wilson M. Beck Insurance Services of Kelowna, “In general, the insurance industry has understood the one-time nature of this event and I don’t foresee any rate increases.” But this is small comfort to the Okaview Road families who lost all of their possessions or whose children still suffer from nightmares of the fire. Losing and rebuilding their homes has been an emotionally shattering exercise of just trying to get back to where they were. Just ask the Berg family. Since the flames first came roaring down and devoured their past life, they’ve moved eight times and anticipate one or two more before their new house is completed. Obviously, Janet looks forward to concluding this wrenching experience: “I am so excited. I can’t wait to move in. I don’t think I will ever move again in my whole life.”