Wildfires pervade this summer of drought in Canada’s western provinces, causing particular upheaval in Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Prolonged, mass evacuations and the spectre of approaching flames reinforce the importance of emergency preparedness and embedding risk management in land use planning. The FireSmart message, explored in this feature story originally published in the summer of 2011, continues to be relevant today — editor.
Hundreds of Canadian towns and cities — and hundreds of thousands of their residents — potentially lie in the path of a wildfire. Remote communities surrounded by forest are inherent to a resource based economy, while sprawl and lifestyle choices are increasingly pushing development into woodland areas.
Every year, somewhere in Canada, evacuations are necessary and property is destroyed. Sometimes lives are lost.
The May 2011 fire in Slave Lake, Alberta, is one of the most notorious examples. Despite the town’s relatively small population of about 7,000, the Insurance Bureau of Canada reports that resulting damages in excess of $700 million rank the conflagration as the second costliest insured disaster in Canadian history (as of 2011).
The Canadian Forest Service pegs the annual average at 9,000 forest fires consuming 2.5 million hectares (6.1 million acres) or 25,000 square kilometres, but the actual number of fires and extent of the destruction varies widely from year to year. Last year (2010), for example, approximately 7,300 fires burnt 3.1 million hectares (7.7 million acres).
Meanwhile, 2009 — a year when forest fires were prominently in the news — was actually one of the least destructive years of the decade with approximately 755,000 hectares (1.9 million acres) consumed. However, the location of the fires may account for the differing public perception since British Columbia alone tallied 213 fires that threatened inhabited areas.
Fire safety experts are calling for design and development standards enshrined in building codes and by-laws as a way to create communities that are less vulnerable to spreading fire and easier to defend if fire does penetrate. Partners in Protection (PiP), an Alberta-based multidisciplinary coalition of emergency services, land use planning and forest/park management specialists, recently released a comprehensive preparedness and response manual targeting what’s known as wild land urban interface (WUI) areas.
FireSmart: Protecting Your Community From Wildfire is drawn from the U.S. based work of the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Firewise Communities program. It’s a guide for landowners, municipal planning, building and fire prevention officials and emergency services personnel, outlining methods to assess, mitigate and respond to wildfire hazards
Hazard assessment draws on GIS mapping
“We’ve known since the 1980s what some of these FireSmart practices are. It’s drawing from our loss experiences in Canada and the U.S.,” says Sean Tracey, (former) Canadian regional manager for the NFPA. “If we do hazard assessments, fire guards and selective thinning of the vegetation it gives firefighters a better chance to set up a defensive operation and stop the fire.”
Canadian Code officials rejected the NFPA’s plea to include such requirements in the 2010 National Building Code, arguing that they are more suited to municipal regulations. Fire safety advocates are now attempting to enlist Canadian municipalities in the FireSmart Communities program, and are continuing to lobby the various provincial and national building code developers.
“Our next chance is the 2015 National Building Code,” Tracey notes. “We’re also looking at running provincial workshops in the next year that educate homeowners, building officials, fire inspectors and other relevant groups.”
Predominant types of vegetation (evergreen trees burn five to 10 times faster than deciduous trees), number and location of access roads and slope of the elevation are all critical factors in deciding where and how to build, and what must be done to maintain properties to reduce risk.
“Fire travels faster up hill, which is counter to how people run,” Tracey observes. “We can pinpoint the highest risk areas in municipal mapping exercises. GIS systems allow them to create these types of maps and overlay them over development plans and other concerns.”
The U.S. Firewise Communities program has broad membership from communities across that country and NFPA officials foresee pent up demand for a similar Canadian program, perhaps particularly in communities that have recently had dramatic firsthand experience of nearby wildfires.
“We have a number of communities in B.C. that have approached us already to become identified as FireSmart communities,” Tracey says. “PiP and NFPA will be working with other organizations such as the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre to promote the FireSmart Canada initiative and work toward recognizing FireSmart communities across Canada.”
The preceding article was originally published in Canadian Property Management, September 2011.