More than Flames, Smoke, and Ash: A Personal Account of the Impact of Wildfire on Life in the Okanagan - GTEC Green Technology Education Centre

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On August 17th from my office in the vineyards of East Kelowna, I could see a plume of smoke rising from the mountains behind West Kelowna.  Wildfires are common in the Okanagan, especially as the summer gets hotter and drier in August, so although large, this flare-up was not a cause for concern. I arrived home from work and realized I needed to run to the grocery store.  As I headed out, I saw people who were waiting to cross the street holding their phones aimed west. I turned to see what they were documenting. A wall of flame and smoke was quickly climbing down the mountains across the lake.

I continued my route, upset and slightly in shock not only by what I had just seen, but also because it was 20 years ago to the day when the Okanagan Mountain Park fire took place. I also have a memory that springs to mind from the Peachland fire during the summer of 2021 when I lived in Glenrosa, the southernmost neighbourhood in West Kelowna. We had been eating our dinner on our front deck when we began to see flames up the mountain. Luckily, we were evacuated for only one night, but I learned how quickly the Emergency Support Services jump into action when disaster hits. I also learned that firefighting aircraft cannot fly at night time. You understand how long the night becomes when news arrives only in the morning.

After returning home from the grocery store and finishing dinner, my partner and I walked down to the water to view the flames from across the lake. We anticipated seeing fire but were surprised by its volume. As we walked along the boardwalk, hundreds of people were watching in silence. We found a seat along the boardwalk across from Bear Creek and Traders Cove regional parks on the west side of the lake. It was a surreal and terrifying experience watching in real time as the flames consumed not only the landscape but peoples’ homes, ranches, and businesses.

On any other summer day in downtown Kelowna, people are everywhere: sitting on patios, laying on the beach, running or cycling along the boardwalk, or just strolling and people-watching. Kelowna in the summer is like a combined Las Vegas and Stanley Park with tons of excited, happy people moving through downtown and along the boardwalk, a mix of tourists enjoying their vacations and locals enjoying the Okanagan lifestyle. Many tourists and locals spend time downtown taking pictures of the scenery, or video chatting. A lively feeling is in the air as we enjoy the beauty of the Okanagan, summer temperatures, and excitement of a small and mighty local community.

That fiery Thursday evening was very different. No beaming smiles, not a lot of movement, lots of muffled whispers, and a different kind of photography, videography, and phone calls.

As we gathered to walk home, we heard someone yell “the fire jumped the lake.” Earlier in the evening, I had been standing on our front sidewalk with my neighbour watching the flames. We discussed the off-chance of the embers being picked up in the wind, flying across the lake, and starting a fire in Kelowna. We doubted this would happen. I ate my words when I got the email alert from the Central Okanagan Regional District Emergency Operations that three communities in Kelowna were being evacuated. From the time I got groceries, the McDougall Creek wildfire had grown from a few flames on top of the mountains behind West Kelowna into a firestorm on both sides of the lake, engulfing all in its path.

While I studied at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops (recently recognized for its sustainability initiatives), sustainability and climate change were discussed in depth. These discussions were often related to the industries that I and fellow tourism and adventure studies students now rely on as careers, including craft beer and wine, agri-tourism, conventions, and adventure activities. These products and services that are inherently climate-dependent are an economic pillar in British Columbia. Tourism makes up 18.3% of BC’s export revenue – more than forestry, oil and gas, or agriculture and fishing (Destination BC, 2021).

In the Okanagan, business relies on the heavy volume of tourists that flock here in the summertime. As a result, many of the community’s small, family-run businesses depend on summer revenue to get through the winter. One week lost in the peak season of July and August is essentially a loss of an eighth of their highest revenue-generating periods.

The Okanagan is a community focused on local food, produce, wine, beer, spirits, and more.  So many entrepreneurial families, tons of local breweries and wineries, and numerous farm stands and farmers’ markets depend on one another’s support and from tourists to make a living.

The media has been extremely helpful in relaying information from emergency services to the public and sharing the news across Canada. However, headlines like “Kelowna is on fire” or “the Okanagan implements travel ban” do not paint the full picture of what’s going on when we’re in a time of crisis. When there are flames and dense smoke present, it isn’t the best place to vacation, especially when people are evacuated from their homes and need places to stay. However, once everything clears, tourism and vacations are back in full swing – but this often doesn’t make the news, which creates both short and long-term impacts to employees and businesses. Summer contracts end early, shifts are cancelled, and revenue drops. For not only entrepreneurs and business owners, a decrease in tourism automatically results in a decrease in income.

Being employed full-time by a tourism-reliant business, I am extremely fortunate that I have a permanent, non-operational position. This particular wildfire has had no impact on my paycheque. However, I’ve not been as lucky in past positions where my shifts were cancelled, my income decreased, or I was even laid off. For the over 130,000 employees in BC’s tourism industry (Destination BC, 2019), climate change-related activities can result in a partial or total loss of income.

When I first learned of climate change and global warming as a grade eight student, I felt hopeful for change. However, with continual global warming, record-breaking temperatures, long periods of drought, and destructive natural disasters, I’ve lost hope wondering not only what I can do, but why I should feel any responsibility. In my lifetime, recycling has been encouraged, electric vehicles have hit the road, and renewable energy has been embraced. We’ve adopted technologies and practices to reduce carbon emissions and the over-extraction and over-use of natural resources, but climate-polluting corporations are still in good business.

I’ve been feeling the negative effects of climate change on my mental health for multiple years. I’ve spent a lot of time researching and implementing practices that support a sustainable lifestyle.  I felt hopeful that if only everyone lived a life focused on environmental sustainability, we could make a change. My mindset was aligned with the concept of the power of one: one small change leads to multiple changes, and one person’s practices can influence others to do the same. While these small acts of radical sustainability are the opposite of harmful, they’re not that helpful in the grander scheme of the massive fight against climate change. I began to feel far less hopeful as I learned and studied.

As a person who was born into this era of climate catastrophe, I can’t help but feel robbed of my health and safety. I worry about having to relocate if my home is lost in a fire and the long-term effects of breathing in wildfire smoke and ash every summer. I fear for the loss of my tight-knit community and the farms that I am so lucky to get my food. I feel worried about having children – aside from the cost of starting a family and the ever-increasing cost of living, I wonder if I should even bring children into this world knowing that natural disasters are becoming increasingly common. Knowing that I’m living in, and the next generation of children will grow up in, a world that will be deteriorating even faster than it is right now is terrifying, especially while our government and mass-polluting corporations don’t do anything radical about it.

Still, I began to feel sparks of hope within the complex realm of climate change as our community rallied together during the McDougall Creek wildfire: local cafes, smoothie bars, and breweries offered their spaces as a safe gathering area for evacuees and firefighters; wineries and restaurants provided pre-packed meals for firefighters; residents with extra space offered their spare rooms, beds, and clothing to one another; hotels opened their rooms to evacuees with no charge. Sacrifices in all sorts of ways were made for the greater good. I felt supported, even though I live downtown and didn’t have to evacuate and was not impacted by the fire.

Our community has shown its strength and resilience when things went so wrong. We have come together to support each other. What would happen if countries around the world came together in the same way? If that collective spirit that we have seen in the Okanagan could be mobilized on a much wider scale, then maybe we could seriously tackle the challenges of the climate crisis because that’s what it is going to take.


Tourism Research – Province of British Columbia
2019 Value of Tourism | Destination BC
Fact Sheet | Destination BC

Alex Loraas works in the tourism industry in Kelowna and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Tourism Management from Thompson Rivers University. She has interests in sustainability, marketing, wine, and tourism.