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Devastating wildfire in Kelowna a reminder of 2003's catastrophic blaze

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Catastrophic wildfires are, sadly, something Kelowna residents have faced before.

In 2003, a massive, record-breaking wildfire forced the evacuation of thousands of people in the city and destroyed more than 200 homes.

At the time, the fire that began with a lightning strike on Aug. 16, 2003, was called a "one-in-a-hundred-year" fire. Two decades later, the community is grappling with another massive fire that’s raging closer to the city.

When it happened, the 2003 wildfire season was unprecedented in scale, but this year’s wildfires have burned six times more area so far.

Know as the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire, the 2003 fire forced roughly 27,000 people to evacuate, according the city of Kelowna’s website.

The blaze burned 25,000 hectares of land.

The thick plumes of smoke and flames shown in videos and photos from 2003 paint an eerily similar picture to what residents 20 years later are experiencing.

“There are these valley walls that are forested that when you get a fire going, there is that possibility that people are going to be impacted,” said John Clague, an emeritus professor in the department of earth science at Simon Fraser University.

The 2003 fire started near the Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park, which meant the City of Kelowna had no authority in the beginning, according to Clague.

"Eventually, Kelowna had to take ownership of it because as it approached Kelowna it became a direct threat to the city,” he said.

In the end, 60 fire departments from across B.C., 1,000 forestry firefighters and 1,400 members of the Canadian Armed Forces join in the firefighting efforts.

2009 was also a notable year of wildfires in West Kelowna. Three fires broke out around the city, destroying homes and other buildings and forcing 11,000 people to evacuate.

Combined with the current wildfires in the area, these historical blazes are a reminder to all levels of government to act, says Maya Daurio, a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of British Columbia.

"We absolutely need to be prepared for more extreme weather events, more extreme disasters,” Daurio said. "We need to look at our infrastructure and determine whether our infrastructure is adequate for the world we're currently living in and the world we're going into.”

Kelowna’s 2003 fire helped to establish the Kelowna and Area Okanagan Fire Recovery Society to help rebuild communities. It’s one positive that could become useful for residents in the coming days as the current blaze continues to rage. 

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