By Marshall Jones, staff reporter (Capital News, Kelowna, British Columbia)
Curtis Bennett was among the first, perhaps the only person in Kelowna to see the spread of advancing flames on Kelowna’s south slopes Friday.
The thick, low-lying smoke kept the flames under cover, but Bennett was able to use a FLIR camera, or Forward Looking Infrared allowing him to see the heat right through the smoke.
“It’s amazing. I can see people on the street minding their own business and behind them I can see this mountain of flame,” Bennett says.
When he’s not watching fire activity, Bennett’s consulting company, Thermografix, is always looking for new applications for his camera.
Unfortunately, he says, he wasn’t able to convince the Kelowna Fire Department about the benefits of the technology.
“There’s lots of infrared cameras but not many like this,” he said.
He can pinpoint different temperatures and see hot spots through the smoke. He uses the camera for several other uses including finding pine beetles, spotting marijuana grow operations for landlords and testing cell phones for radiation.
He’s also trying to convince physicians that he can watch a SARS-like fever move through the body and tell if medicine is working.
The following is a visual and narrative account of how the Okanagan Mountain fire exploded last Friday afternoon, devouring 248 homes and displacing 30,000 Kelowna residents from their homes. The remarkable infrared images taken by Curtis Bennett show the fire flaring up and taking off under the influence of 60 km/h winds. The narrative account is an edited transcript of radio communications between fire fighters taken from the Capital News scanner. It provides a chilling blow-by-blow description of the potentially fatal challenges the firefighters faced trying to stop what became a category six firestorm.
Kelowna Fire Department platoon Captain Len Moody was responsible for five, then six, then seven task forces assigned to different areas of the upper Mission Friday night.
The following is why Chief Gerry Zimmermann made sure Prime Minister Jean Chretien shook the hand of the man who may have saved lives and many, many homes.
The following radio transmissions are a fraction ofthe exchanges from a very busy and unprecedented night in urban firefighting.
Removed were large sections of the details involved in deploying 300 men and women and 140 pieces of equipment.
The communications below have only been edited for clarity. The rest is exactly as it was said. Moody’s words are noted by italics.
TIME CHECK 4:02 p.m.
Task Force one and two (TF-1 and -2), this is Moody. I can’t get you any help in there guys, the road’s been breached here so you got to fight your way in there.
Roger that, we are doing the best we can.
Okay, the other thing I want to remind you guys of in there, is if the hydro line goes down, conserve your water because they are electric pumps up there so don’t waste any of it.
Roger that. Thanks for the heads up.
Dispatch this is Moody. Maybe, one of those bush trucks coming to Cedar Creek here, redeploy them to Belcarra. She’s awful dicey here so keep your head up.
TF-1, Engine 112 is almost out of fuel. Repeat, Engine 112 is in need of fuel, please.
The fuel truck has left the area, repeat fuel truck has left the area you won’t be getting fuel right now.
TIME CHECK: 4:13 p.m.
This is engine 128. We are at the Cedar Creek firehall and it is on fire, right beside the trees, they are going to burn.
Kelowna Dispatch from District 7: I don’t want to give you bad news but we got a solid wall of flame heading straight for Stewart and Diamond. I would put it at half a kilometre.
Stewart and Diamond.
There is nothing we can do to stop it. I would say they are 100 feet in the air plus.
Moody Command, this is Engine 128. We are at the Cedar Creek firehall, where would you like us to go?
I’ve got a hydrant there, there is another engine on this side. Try to stop it from going across the road there. I know it is impinging on that trailer park, forget the trailer park, let’s try to stop it from going across the road.
Make sure you got an escape route because it is moving pretty fast. The wind is really vicious. It came across the road probably in about 15 seconds.
Dispatch this is Moody. I need to know if these hydrants are going to work on Chute Lake Road, where they are fed from, if they are electric pumps, where I am going to get my water from or if we are going to run out? Either talk to engineering or find out real quick because if we don’t have any water on this road we got to get out of here.
Capt Moody, We are starting to get spot fires here and a structure fire in Belcarra. I think we can still engage it, but we are going to need, if possible, a bush truck and some manpower and I don’t know if—copied this or not.
He did but I can’t get you any yet. You’ve got to do with what you got. I have none to give you, I can’t get them in there.
Dispatch: Stand by PC Moody, John Vos is explaining to you where the water is coming from.
Vos: I’ll go real quick. Just up from Cedar Creek ditch, up to Stellar and Uplands and from there it’s pumped to the very top. As long as we keep power at Stellar and Uplands we can keep pumping water to you.
Can you have somebody down there tell me if that pump goes down so I can get my guys out of here?
Ten-four. We are remote monitoring it, we can tell right away when it goes out.
As soon as it goes, let me know please.
Moody from dispatch.
You have lost power to your hydrants. Aquila will be trying to redirect it. At this point we will be notifying you when you are at 50 per cent capacity right now you are about 91.
Thanks. We just impinged the park across from Cedar Creek firehall. I am probably going to deploy a couple of guys down the road. We’re going to try to make a stand here.
TIME CHECK 5:02.
Moody this is engine 119. We are at the corner of Southridge and Cantina. The fire has progressed north towards the first structures and the structures are going to go.
Can you take a defensive position somewhere there to protect yourself and maybe the other ones. Any chance of that? If not, if it looks too ugly, get out. There is only one way out of that place which is, there is a new road, Frost Road across the top there. It has got some barricades across it if you have to move them, go through there, that will get you out.
We’re safe. We are covered. We —
OK, make sure you got an escape route.
We have escape.
We’ve got probably 70/80 km/h winds here. It is moving, the forest warden tells me, at least 100 metres every minute. So you got to keep that under consideration. That’s everybody.
Staging officer (Lt. Tim) Light this is Moody. You better get Channel 2 up on the forestry channel there. Get one of your radios, get one of your portables or something on the forestry. I’ve got eyes in the air, he’s going to be our safety eyes. If I don’t happen to hear him, tell him to get on Channel 2. Talk to him, he’s up there.
Roger that, we’re getting on it.
Engine 112 Lt. Davidson.
Battalion One, we have a fire southeast of us and we got no water there. She’s going.
— get out.
Dave, we need help up here.
115 get out. Now.
Dispatch this is Moody. I’ve been talking to Forestry. I am going to re-deploy some units to Crawford Road Estates. He says it is heading that way at about 1,000 metres a minute, I mean 100 metres a minute, so I am going to deploy all the units I can over there. Also, I need your ears up on Channel 2. The Foresty will be giving its updates on where it’s going, I need that information.
Roger, I have a portable on F2.
Thanks. You are doing great work.
She’s mighty ugly out here. Be safe.
Time check 5:13 p.m.
Capt. Moody from dispatch: Caller on Raymer says it is racing up towards Crawford from her backyard. Raymer: flames racing up towards Crawford from her backyard.
I can believe that.
Good. We thought so, good.
Capt. Moody this is staging. Do you want a busload of refreshed guys up there?
I don’t think it’s safe. There is no place to change them that’s safe, it is coming too hard.
Transfer in for the guys who have been out there for 12, 14 hours?
I would sooner not. These guys know what they are doing, what they are dealing with and with the wind I would just as soon get out of there. If we have to go back in we are going in with fresh crews. I’d sooner just have the crews in there so they can get out.
O Reilly? We need water Lt. Shawn.
Barry, grab those guys get up here, we got to get out of here real quick, right now. No hoses. Don’t forget anybody, just get out of there.
Moody from TF-1. Yeah, I think Viewcrest and Uplands they are starting to go. Okaview is now, uh, there’s a number of house fires, it is getting pretty hard to pass through.
What other fall back points? Can we go back up to Kettle Valley if we get out of here?
The only chance you have got is to go back to Kettle Valley, stage in the middle of that subdivision up there.
Moody, this is (Chief Gerry) Zimmermann. Okay, Len pull all your task forces back, pick a line. Pick a different line, something achieveable and try to hold that one because there is no use doing bits and pieces up there. Pull back and maybe deploy everything in one spot.
OK. Let’s try Barnaby Road, guys. All Task units report in: Do you read that? pull back to Barnaby Road.
Roger that.: TF-5.
TF-1 copy, we are starting to pull out.
Command, this is TF-4. Leonard, I just was talking to forestry boss here and he said give everybody a heads-up: Extreme winds coming out through Peachland, high winds up to 60 clicks.
And which directions are they blowing?
You guessed it. Ours.
Moody, this is staging. If you are going to have all those trucks (at Barnaby Road) is that a good place to switch crews?
You can try, but we got it licking right at us, so whatever, if you want to stage them down at Larry’s, fine. I am going to use them for staging. I am going to find someone else and we are going to have Barnaby Road as Task No. 7. I need some officer in charge of it and I need it quick.
TIME CHECK 5:39 p.m.
Moody from TF-5: We are coming down the new road that is pushed through to the top of Barnaby.
Fine. If you can do that there is a couple of structure fires coming down there I am sure there is no hydrants there. I have engines deployed to the top of Barnaby road, find yourself a hydrant there and hook up to it. I don’t want crews stretching a lot of hose there because you might have to move. Looks like the winds shifted to the north. It is going to come right at us on Barnaby Road so we have to get ready.
TIME CHECK 5:59 p.m.
Moody, this is (Lt.) Dennis Loken. I believe the power is still on up here.
I don’t want to cut it off because, can’t cut the power supply so just stand clear if (powerlines) are going down. If I lose my power, I lose my water supply, so I don’t want to cut it.
Dispatch, it’s Moody. I need somebody to talk to Aquila. See if it’s possible to keep this pump on down here at Lakeshore. Somehow just cut the power off to the areas affected—Uplands, Viewcrest, probably south of Barnaby— but I need the power on at this pumphouse or I lose my water. Or talk to Vos, make sure I get water somehow. I have to have it on Barnaby Road. If it means leaving the power on lets do it.
Moody, tender 106. I’ve got a military crew here, wants to fall some trees along the ridgeline on Barnaby is that OK?
Go for it. They have to be very very portable. This fire is travelling at an extreme rate. I am at Uplands, I am about a half a mile away from a category six firestorm that is taking everything in its path.
Copy that. Category six firestorm.
Dispatch, this is Moody. Is there any chance there might be somebody in the air telling me what is going to happen at Barnaby Road?
What do you need Len, it’s TF-3.
I just want to know when it is going to hit us at Barnaby Road.
Roger that, have you talked to 51 Lima at all?
He’s got no eyes. He can’t see it, it is too smoky.
Roger. That’s a long way from Barnaby.
It won’t be long. It’ll be there.
Moody, TF-1: Yeah we are up at west end of Kettle Valley. I have just taken a head count, everyone’s accounted for. We got some of the trucks out, some of the hose. We are going to start sending some of the trucks up.
Yeah, just try taking a defensive position in there. They tell me the reservoir is full up there I just had a look so be real careful on your water I don’t know how long I am going to keep it going to you. I’ve got a Category Six at least going along Lakeshore Road it is probably going to take out that pump station, that is all the water I am going to have is in the reservoir.
Moody this is Marine Rescue 2. The pump station down at the nudie beach looks very safe as long as the power is on to it.
I need you to go in there Marine Rescue 2 and deploy your pump in there and see if you can keep that pump station going. If it gets risky in there, get out. But I need that pump station as long as I can have it.
TIME CHECK 6:15 p.m.
Marine Rescue Two: The helicopter is making numerous drops around the pumping station here. It looks pretty secure here now.
I still need you on the scene there. If you can do anything, do it.
Roger. Right now we’re just staying out of the helicopter’s way because he is right in there close. But we’ll keep an eye on it.
Yeah, I need that pump station if you can rescue it. Can you see that fire coming at us down Lakeshore?
Pretty smoky, no.
TIME CHECK: 6:23 p.m.
Dispatch, go ahead (Assistant Chief Rene) Blanleil.
We’re up here—Stewart Road east—we have a 3 km wide fire. Coming down the hill…suggest…evacuation for Gallaghers Canyon, south of that probably down as far as KLO Road, over.
Roger that. Gallagher’s Canyon as far down south as KLO Road.
—one coming up here on the right, there’s structures on fire and their backyard.
You should be able to save this one, there’s a hydrant right on the corner. Then the next one you should be able to save too if we can get at it right away.
Copy. We’ll guard the fire and we’ll get at ‘er.
The other thing I don’t know is, there’s a house here on your left it’s fully involved it’s just spreading to the other ones. Maybe you can get into this one to have a look on it. And keep your ears up. I don’t know where that firestorm six is coming from but lets try and save these two anyway.
TF-5 Loken: Is there a chance that a food wagon can come up this way? Some of these guys are getting hungry.
Roger that, we’ll co-ordinate something.
Dispatch this is Moody. Can you tell me if the power is off to Kettle Valley?
Dispatch this is Moody. I need Aquila. I have powerlines down all across the road, I cannot get my pumpers out. I’ve gone into Chute Lake, I will pick ‘em up there. It seems like it’s perfectly safe for working on it.
Time Check 6:48 p.m.
TF-4, TF-6. I’ve got some groceries down here, you were hungry? Where are you?
Go to Stewart Road east and Crawford.
Moody, 108: Len we’re holding off this one house, we’ve got six in between and we got three more going. So if you could get another engine up here it would sure be a help.
I’ll send you a tender with a pump on it. There’s two actually coming up to your location right there on Chute Lake Road.
Len, dispatch: Power is definitely off to Kettle Valley.
I can guarantee that? I can bring my trucks through and hit those hydro lines?
They guarantee us that power is off to Kettle Valley and that the ETA of 10 minutes for the—Didn’t get any information on Chute Lake just that the power was off to Kettle Valley.
TF-1, Mitchell, are your ears up?
Go ahead, dispatch.
Cannot confirm that any of the wires on old Chute Lake Road are dead, either.
So neither one of them have confirmation of dead wires on them? Thank you. I think old Chute Lake road is clear it’s just the new part of it I need and there’s some houses there I need to protect, so it would be nice if they could hustle their butts.
He’s hurrying as fast as he can.
Command, this is dispatch: I have confirmation gas is off to Crawford estates. Gas is off to Crawford Estates.
Moody, firehall dispatch. Give the chief a landline when you get a moment, please.
Roger. I can do that.
TIME CHECK 7:35 p.m.
TF-6 from Firehall: Larry, apparently the pump house at the nudie beach has lost power and we’re not going to be able to get it back up, but we do have a stand-by generator and preparing to send that. Some guys in with it but can you assure there’s an escort in? That they’ll be safe?
Absolutely, no problem. We gotta’ keep that going.
Len this is Neil. Be advised, the fire has jumped Stewart Road east, it is burning in an easterly direction.
Do we have anything up there to stop it?
— tied up in Crawford, we’re going to try to keep Crawford.
Do the best you can. Staging 6, if you could deploy some of these engines off of Barnaby up to Crawford we’ll do that.
Yeah, we’re on it Len, that’s exactly what we’re doing now. Taking everything off there that doesn’t have to be there.
Larry, we have the ability to draw out of swimming pools with a front-mounted pump. We’ve just been released from TF-5 and under your command now.