An elderly couple clutching a few possessions running from their home. Photo: Kelowna.com
Our best wishes must go out to the victims of the latest tragedy in West Kelowna (formerly known as Westbank). We hope that you are safe and that you recover from any inconvenience or loss of property. It's been six years since the Kelowna area faced a similar threat. Why is it happening again?
Neighbourhoods burned to the ground in 2003 after a record-breaking spell of dry weather. This year we've had even less precipitation and the ground is tinder dry across the province. We're building homes in the desert, and predictably fire is a huge risk.
A couple of years ago I posted on my blog the question, did urban sprawl fuel California's wildfires? To me it seemed obvious, but no mainstream media source seemed to be discussing it. After all, we were still madly building all those unsustainable sprawl communities that led to the USA's economic collapse. Why spoil the party?
I'm just about to return to the Okanagan for an annual wine touring vacation, and we've got to know the South Okanagan well over the last several years. We know the pressure that residential development and agriculture have placed on this desert. Kelowna over the last 30 or so years has the appearance of a city growing in the wrong direction, out instead of up.
A few have written on the subject of sprawl in the Okanagan. Notably, there is this report by former Premier Mike Harcourt and this passage on the pressures of urban sprawl in Kelowna.
The Okanagan Basin faces some extraordinary challenges of urban sprawl and congestion, water shortages and quality, and threatened agricultural land. Sprawl and congestion are particularly urgent issues in and around Kelowna. This city is a prime negative example of growth happening in an ad hoc way. The miles of strip malls north of Kelowna's spotty downtown, and the congestion along that section of Highway 97, cries out for a rethink of Kelowna's future. As well another bridge and highway bypass are urgently needed to unscramble some of the mess.
Add to these growth headaches the problems of increased pressures on limited resources: water shortages, milfoil, "beaver fever" contamination, growing sewage and water treatment needs, mudslides, and irrigation requirements for agriculture. Add the problems the tree fruit growers are facing from unfair competition from their U.S. counterparts, and the ongoing conversion of orchards into acreage estates and you have an even bigger challenge, particularly with the aggressive real estate development industry hungrily eyeing these lands for more "gated" communities. Hopefully the Okanagan Land and Resource Management Plans and regional growth strategies will help the Okanagan residents come up with a "smart" growth strategy. Agriculture and urban growth may be able to survive together.
In an essay titled Sprawling Through Paradise: Urban Growth in the Okanagan (published here), urbanist Gord Price writes:
To enter Kelowna and Penticton now comes as a shock. That Sixties shopping center, once on the edge of town, is now overwhelmed by the big-boxes and discount warehouses that repeat themselves for so many miles that you simply lose track. The traffic rivals the worst of Vancouver. This is the machinery of sprawl, and it works for a reason.
The land must be cheap to accommodate the vast surface parking lots, and cheap land requires more and more roads, requiring that everyone drive, requiring the need for vast parking lots. Downtown dies, people and businesses move further out, development surges out along the highway corridors and jumps over any constraint in its way, to the next greenfield site soon to be home for the next stand-alone Wal-Mart, the next self-contained golf-course community.
Could anyone be proud of this, one wonders during a numbing drive down Highway 97, or is it simply seen as inevitable, a consequence of incremental decision-making and split jurisdiction?
The David Suzuki Foundation has also written about urban sprawl and fire. Amazingly, even after nearly 36 hours of wall-to-wall media coverage on the fires, none have really talked about sprawl contributing to this calamity.
Instead of commissioning another expensive report by an ex-Premier on why the fires keep happening, perhaps we should ask the obvious. How can we build our cities and suburbs in such a way that raging fires don't sweep past your front door?
The pressures on the water system in the Okanagan are enormous. We can't just keep building roads, bridges and highways into the desert without knowing the consequences. There is great hope for the economic future of this region, only if the local leadership stands up against those who only want to make a quick buck on real estate.