Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Remembering the fiery nightmare of 2003

THE GARGANTUAN tree stretches its grotesque and blackened limbs towards the sky in a pleading fashion. It stands alone on an acre or more of burned stumps, mixed with weeds, close to Highway 97 near the Whispering Pines area of Falkland.
Each day during my travels through this devastated area, that skeleton of a once stately tree reminds me of the nightmare, which took place in what has been called the Cedar Hill Fire. However, it was just a small portion of the whole picture as the province seemed to be engulfed in flames throughout the month of August, 2003.
Before the fires were extinguished in what has been called ‘The Day From Hell’ or, perhaps, more appropriately should be called ‘The Weeks From Hell’ as scorching temperatures, coupled with tinder-dry trees and rotting underbrush, threatened everyone throughout the Okanagan. It caused massive devastation from Kelowna to Peachland to Kamloops to Barriere to Louis Creek and beyond.
And since that 2003 Falkland Fire when I pass that grotesque tree I usually murmur, facetiously: “Welcome to paradise.”
When the sun started to beat down on my valley and throughout the Okanagan the other day, my thoughts stretched back five years and I again began to re-read an e-mail from Saturday, August 16 of that cruel year.
It read: “I’m glad things are starting to get back back to normal near your place. It was a strange drive to Penticton this morning. The fire, which began last night, had spread all around the mountain by mid-afternoon, blanketing nearby Peachland and Kelowna in a thick cloud of smoke.
“I’ve driven through burnt-out Louis Creek and past the blackened hills near Whispering Pines – but neither compared to the eeriness of my hometown filled with wildfire smoke. Anyway, I’m sure you know the feeling after the events of this strange summer. Signed, David.
Besides, the e-mail, David forwarded a story he had written for August 6, 2003. It read, in part: “Black smoke still curls from patches of Shea Alexander’s backyard nearly a week after a devastating wildfire started alongside Highway 97, a stone’s throw from the teen’s house. It’s suspected the fire started after a driver flicked a lit cigarette out the window. Alexander, 15, stood in his backyard Wednesday surveying the blackened hillside behind his country home, a 10-minute drive from Falkland. He ventured up a narrow dirt road toward the highway to inspect what’s left of his stepfather’s workshop.”
In a strange twist of fate, both the e-mail and the story were written by David Wylie, who would become the first managing editor of the Vernon Daily Courier less than two years later and now works in Ottawa in 2008, and Shea Alexander, who just celebrated his 20th birthday, happens to be my grandson.
Of course, that August became an adventure for everyone, who lived in the Okanagan.
As the fire blazed towards the Ol’ Homestead, we packed Molly The Cat in the back of the car and headed to Falkland to open the community church so church visitors and even locals could congregate. They did, but Molly, then a small one, had her own adventures; first disappearing over the bank from the then Pastor Hanik’s house in the dark and then finding the crawl space behind a microwave in the church kitchen. Later, we all bunked at friends in Westwold.
One of the most concerning times was at that church, when some “know-it-all” passed on the information that our homestead, etc. had gone up in flames. That caused great consternation as well as Excedrin Headache #763.
However, after returning to the Whispering Pines area, we found our two homes were still intact, although the flames had burned within 15 feet of both.
While 2003 were the ‘Weeks From Hell,’ I was holding my breath once again in August, 2006 when lightning started “smoke and fire” near Falkland. It was quickly doused.
With such threats still on the horizon this year that’s certainly enough reason to be praying for rain throughout all of August 2008.


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