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2023 B.C. wildfire season new standard for future: West Kelowna Fire Chief

Chief Jason Brolund was a panelist at the Make It Safe Okanagan 2024 conference

The Make It Safe Okanagan 2024 conference was held in Kelowna on April 18.

Taking over the Coast Capri Hotel, the conference included an afternoon panel reflecting on the 2023 wildfire season.

West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund was among the panellists.

Brolund was a firefighter during the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire. At the time it was believed that fire would be a once in a career fight, but Brolund said this past fire season proved a need to set a new standard for the future.

“My mind could not process the fact the fire had jumped the lake,” Brolund said. “In that moment I had a list with 100 things on it and somebody showed me a picture, they actually printed it out because that was the only way they could get it in front of me… They printed out a picture of the fire burning just below Wilden and handed it to me, and all my mind could process there was how horrible it was that someone was setting fires at the same time we were dealing with our fire.”

But in actuality the McDougall Creek fire had jumped Okanagan Lake, sparking blazes in both Kelowna and Lake Country.

“Embers travelling 2.5 kilometres is not really unheard of, but over a body of water where the humidity is higher that’s not supposed to happen.”

One of the learning curves for the fire department was keeping up with the everyday tasks of the job.

“I’m lucky, I have four senior leaders below me,” Brolund explained. “We all went out to the fire line and we had 100 houses on fire and that was where we were expected to be, but all of these other things kept happening. Somebody needed new gloves and the trucks broke down and shoelaces broke and somebody didn’t get their overtime and we assigned the wrong shift to somebody. All the normal day-to-day stuff kept happening, but what we heard from our people is that because we were so engrossed in the big incident we lost sight of the smaller ones.”

Another challenge for the department was having to evacuate their own homes while still working. Brolund was among the firefighters who had to rely on his spouse to evacuate their home while he battled the wildfire.

“How do we make sure that they are able to get evacuated and that they are taken care of?” Brolund questioned. “One of my guys, I asked him where he saw sleeping and he said ‘I’m sleeping under my desk at work’. That was just what had to be done in the moment… In defence of my people, I’m pushing to have first responders go to the front of the line at those evacuation centres and their families. I know that means putting them in front of many of you, but it lets me tell their husband or wife that’s at work that it’s been taken care of.”

Brolund said it should be expected that unfortunate events like the McDougall Creek wildfire will happen again. He encouraged families and businesses to re-evaluate their emergency plans and think on a bigger scale.

The panel also included Vegpro International Plant Manager Gavin Johnson and SunRype President Lesli Bradley.

The conference was put on by Manufacturing Safety Alliance of BC.

READ MORE: 51 days of fire that gripped the Central Okanagan: A look back at the Grouse Complex

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Brittany Webster

About the Author: Brittany Webster

I am a video journalist based in Kelowna and capturing life in the Okanagan
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