On August 16, 2003, a lightning strike in Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park sparked a wildfire that quickly gained infamy and seized national news headlines. Fuelled by wind and an enormous load of deadfall on the forest floor, the firestorm spread north and east to force the evacuation of 27,000 Kelowna residents and burn down 239 homes and structures, including many houses in the neighbourhood where I now live.

The wildfire burned so hot, it turned the soil to ash and created hazards near trails, such as unstable trees and holes that kept both Okanagan Mountain Park and neighbouring Myra-Bellevue Provincial Park closed for two years. The fire also destroyed 12 of the historic wooden train trestles in Myra Canyon that had to be rebuilt, and that portion of the Kettle Valley Railway—one of Kelowna’s top tourist attractions—didn’t reopen until 2008.

Ian Walker

Twenty years on, there’s still evidence of the fire, but the charred stumps and ghost forests of denuded pines share the stage with an abundance of new growth and animal life. On hikes and during trail runs in Myra, I regularly pass adolescent aspen and lodgepole pine nurseries that are noticeably filling in the forest, and I hear (and sometimes see) busy woodpeckers and other birds.

To get a sense of how time has healed the park close to where the fire started, my husband and I hiked into the heart of Okanagan Mountain Park to camp overnight in late June.


Hike to Divide Lake

Lisa Kadane

Our destination was Divide Lake, close to the summit of Okanagan Mountain and accessible by a 5.5-kilometre one-way trek up Mountain Goat Trail from the park’s south parking lot. We began hiking through a dense undergrowth of Labrador tea, Saskatoon and thimbleberry bushes, edged by lodgepole pine trees.

After a couple of kilometres, the trail opened into a landscape of gneiss rock outcrops interspersed with aspens, alders, willows and the ever-present lodgepole pine. The exposed slopes rioted with wildflowers and skeleton tree trunks poked their bony, needle-less tips above this new green forest mosaic, proof of what happened here in 2003.

During our final push to the backcountry campground, we enjoyed expansive views down Okanagan Lake toward Penticton. Dark clouds threatened a storm that never materialised and cast a dramatic light over the rounded mountains in every direction.

If the ecological purpose of fire is renewal, Okanagan Mountain Park seems to be on track.


Natural Regrowth in a Fire-Adapted Landscape

“Our plants and our trees, they’re used to fire, they’re adapted to recovering from fire,” says Lael Parrott, a professor in sustainability at the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan campus.

“Fire doesn’t have to be destructive,” says Parrott, who also worked on the university’s Living with Wildfire project that seeks to normalise wildfire as a natural and cyclical part of the Okanagan landscape. “It’s good for the ecosystem.”

Ian Walker

Both Okanagan Mountain and Myra-Bellevue parks are protected, so BC Parks left them alone to regrow naturally. This is a better post-fire approach than re-planting with “marketable” pine trees, says Parrott, because it leads to a diversity of species, including deciduous trees that don’t burn as easily as their coniferous cousins.

In fact, each time we crossed a drainage area, the trail would disappear under a blanket of bushes that had grown over the path. These natural shady spots along watersheds nurture deciduous trees and shrubs, and create natural firebreaks thanks to the moisture.

The 2003 fire was extremely hot and destructive, but plants started sprouting up on cue the following year even though the soil experienced extreme heating, says David Scott, an associate professor in Earth, Environmental and Geographic Sciences at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan campus.

“Most fire-adapted species would be perfectly happy” after a wildfire, says Scott, who teaches soil science and studies the effects of wildfire on hydrology and erosion. “Soil is a good insulator, and temperatures beneath the surface will most likely not be hot enough to kill all living tissue.”

Species like bunchgrass and arrowleaf balsamroot (aka Okanagan sunflowers) have deep taproots and bounced right back. So did lupines, the pretty purple flowers that do double duty as “nitrogen fixers”—plants that capture nitrogen and return it to the soil.

Blake Ford

From our campsite at Divide Lake, we couldn’t guess what was going on beneath the ground to restore the park, but we could see the end result—birds flitting between pine trees on the opposite lakeshore, a chipmunk creeping close to the picnic table, bees alighting on yellow sedum, a flowering succulent.


How Fire Management Might Look in the Future 

Two decades later, the park is again an outdoor playground. Like most Kelowna residents, I shudder to think of it going up in smoke again, but experts say that controlled burns might be the answer. Historically, fires came through the Okanagan every two to 25 years, and using prescribed burns to clear deadfall is one way to prevent another devastating fire like the one in 2003. 

Blake Ford 

“We can manage fuel loads best by using fire as part of the fuel reduction program,” says Scott, acknowledging it can be a hard sell where people have been brought up believing all fires are bad and should be extinguished. “With fuel management and prescribed burning, we can ‘restore’ our dry forests to a more open, park-like landscape.”

Post-fire, it’s the scenery on view in the park now. I don’t know what the next 20 years will bring, but for now I’ll keep hitting the trails that wind through this uniquely Okanagan landscape.


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