‘Fight of our lives:’ West Kelowna fire chief to UN climate summit

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The United Nations this week heard the harrowing tale of how climate change impacted B.C.’s Okanagan region this summer with devastating wildfires.

In a speech to the UN climate summit this week in New York, West Kelowna fire chief Jason Brolund said climate change has become very real for Kelowna residents.

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“I want to take you back with me to a hot, windy August night. We were surrounded by fire. Wind was driving it down on us. The sky was orange. We were dug in, it was the fight of our lives,” he told delegates at the UN convention on the impacts of global warming.

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Brolund, who was also a wildfire evacuee this summer, spoke about how the community was devastated by wildfire, and that a firefighter told him it was like “fighting 100 years of wildfires in one night.”

That night — when the McDougall Creek jumped Okanagan Lake — police officers jammed entire families in their car and then drove through flames to escape, he said.

“We ordered over 10,000 people to get out that first night … Some people made it to the lake, their only option to survive in the water,” Brolund said. He recalled being told to go home but he just thought there was “no way” he could sleep while his colleagues battled this blaze.

“Not all doors were knocked on, the fire came too fast,” he said, adding that he has never stopped thinking about the difficult decision to put firefighters in harm’s way.

He recalled how firefighters saved an entire row of homes with a crew of only eight and how, despite all odds, they saved a $75-million new water treatment plant.

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“As the sun rose that morning, I went home to shower and my wife asked me, ‘How bad?’ And all I could answer was, ‘Very, very, very bad.’ The question in my mind that I wouldn’t say to her was, ‘How much death?’ How did this happen to us? We were gutted,” he said.

“Hundreds of homes were destroyed, but somehow, someway, there were no missing persons … no bodies discovered … no lives lost.”

Brolund, who fought wildfires during the 2003 Kelowna firestorm, said firefighters are battling fires on a scope and scale that’s “nearly impossible for us to be successful against” because of climate change.

“Climate change became very real for West Kelowna on Aug. 16,” he said.  “Over $20 million was spent reacting to my fire, not to mention the insurance losses which could be triple that.”

He questioned what could have been accomplished if that money had been spent proactively fighting climate change.

“We’re spending the money on the wrong end of the problem.”

Halifax assistant chief Sherry Dean also spoke to the UN climate summit about wildfires in that province.

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