Cover

A YEAR OF WI NNERS

A historian, a singer, a golfer, and especially a fire chief well considered as the Canadians of the Year

KEN MACQUEEN December 29 2003
Cover

A YEAR OF WI NNERS

A historian, a singer, a golfer, and especially a fire chief well considered as the Canadians of the Year

KEN MACQUEEN December 29 2003

A YEAR OF WI NNERS

A historian, a singer, a golfer, and especially a fire chief well considered as the Canadians of the Year

KEN MACQUEEN

THE SPIRIT OF KELOWNA

IT WAS FRIDAY night, Aug. 22, in the midst of an evacuation that would see 30,000 people—almost one-third of Kelowna—forced from their homes by the wind-driven Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park fire. In all, 238 homes would burn. It was hard to imagine things could get worse, until Kelowna Fire Chief Gerry Zimmermann took a call from Platoon Capt. Len Moody. The inferno had roared past, trapping fire crews and forcing the rest to regroup at Barnaby Road on Kelowna’s southern edge. Moody warned that road, too, could fall, leaving the city at risk. They agreed they might have to bulldoze a neighbourhood to save the city.

“My heart thumped a couple of times,” Zimmermann says. He asked operations staff to plot a fireguard and assemble heavy equipment. “There was such trust no one raised an eyebrow,” he says. They were within an hour of flattening homes when the winds died. Meantime, crews cut off by flames continued battling house fires, uncertain of their own fate. Zimmermann, 54, would learn later that among those trapped firefighters was his 26-year-old son Chris.

He tells these stories to make a point. Kelowna is rebuilding, but it takes time. “You suppress a lot of things because you do what you have to do,” he says. “When it’s over, the mind goes into rerun.” He believes the city and the department have emerged stronger. “We’ve all learned how important people are—not things,” he says. For many, the chief’s daily fire briefings embodied the spirit of Kelowna. His blunt assessments came unfiltered. His emotions were like turbulent weather systems: occasional tears, with flashes of outrage and gales of

laughter. He learned the value of such openness in another crisis—the death of his wife in a car crash seven years ago. “It helped prepare me,” he says, “for what I went through here.” His refuge is the hobby farm on the city’s fringe where his children were raised. His eldest, Nikki, 28, is a teacher. Chris followed him into the department.

‘We’ve learned how important people are—not things,’ the chief says Sarah, 22, is in university. Zimmermann is engaged to Sandy, the widow of a fireman killed years ago in a plane crash. They’ll set a wedding date once life returns to normal.

He has rebuffed entreaties to seek a federal Liberal nomination, but he’s accepted a long list of speaking engagements and fundraisers from clubs, aid agencies and churches. It’s a chance to repay those who helped. The attention is flattering, but this was a “massive group effort,” he says. “It was about thousands of people—I just happened to be the one who got to talk about it from time to time.”