Preparing for and Preventing Wildfire: Reflection and Resources

The recent tragedy in Fort McMurray has brought into stark focus the threat and consequence of a major interface wildfire. Preparing for and preventing wildfire in BC is an ongoing and shared responsibility of the Province, local governments, First Nations, industry and all BC residents.

Every year BC experiences on average 1,800 wildfires.   While hundreds of thousands of hectares of forestland burn annually, only a few of those fires (and a small portion of that total area) occur in the community interface where people and property are at direct risk.

In a forested province such as ours, however, that risk is ever present with a chance combination of ignition, fuel and temperature creating sudden and unforeseen emergency situations.

Ask the residents of Cranbrook, Kelowna or Barriere, who could only evacuate their homes and watch as the 2003 “Firestorm” wildfires threatened to destroy neighbourhoods, businesses and livelihoods. For many, the results were catastrophic.  Last August, the citizens of Rock Creek had to respond urgently as their community was overtaken by wildfire. More than 30 homes were destroyed.

The Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy is the national plan for wildfire prevention, mitigation and preparedness. This week the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers reaffirmed a strong joint commitment to the Strategy in a 10-Year Review and Renewed Call to Action in the face of increasing fire frequency and severity.

In our province, the BC Wildfire Service is responsible for preparing for, and responding to, fires when they occur, threatening resources and property.

Communities can, and must, play an active role in identifying and eliminating hazards. About half of BC wildfires are caused by people and while they may be unforeseen, almost 50% of them are preventable. We all have a role to play to prepare for fire, prevent ignitions and work to limit damaging effects when they occur.

Through UBCM, local governments have been partners in wildfire prevention since 2004, working with the Province to reduce the threat and prepare for interface fires.  Communities such as Hudson’s Hope, Logan Lake, Kelowna, Nelson, Prince George, Telkwa and Whistler have made use of Strategic Wildfire Prevention Initiative (SWPI) grant funding to plan and undertake forest fuel management on public lands with high and extreme wildfire threat ratings.

First Nations are also eligible for funding to reduce the hazard around their communities. The First Nations’ Emergency Services Society provides technical expertise to SWPI and FireSmart efforts, and delivers other fire prevention services on reserve.

Under SWPI, nearly 300 Community Wildfire Protection Plans have been completed, with more presently under development and more than 11,000 hectares of forestland has been treated, reducing the threat to communities.

SWPI FireSmart Planning Grants, the FireSmart Community Recognition Program and FireSmart Local Representative Workshops provide funds, resources and training to further protect communities “from the inside out,” educating homeowners and reducing the fire threat on private lands.

By being aware and prepared, we all play a role in keeping our communities safe from wildfire.  It is difficult to imagine a more vivid example of the potential for devastation than what we have just witnessed in northern Alberta.

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