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Canadian Wildland Fire Threat

Written by Posted On Tuesday, 13 July 2004 00:00

Canadians will suffer loss of life and property to forest fires as residential developments continue to encroach on forested areas unless builders and municipalities adopt FireSmart designs. Interface fires, which occur in places where forests and wild areas meet urban development, were at an all-time record high in British Columbia last year and the threat continues .

Fire is nature's way of rejuvenating forest areas, but when human settlement is in the path of the flames, fires are catastrophic. B.C.'s Firestorm of 2003 destroyed over 344 homes and many businesses, and forced the evacuation of almost 50,000 people when 2,500 wildfires raged through B.C.'s interior. Firestorm 2003 carried a price tag of $700 million. The greatest cost of all was the loss of three pilots who died in the line of duty.

Although Firestorm 2003 drew a loudly-applauded fire fighting response of over 10,000 people from emergency agencies across B.C. and significant support from other provinces and the federal government, there was wide-spread consensus that many aspects of planning, preparation, response and recovery could be improved.

Former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon, commissioned by the province to conduct an independent assessment, produced the Firestorm 2003 Provincial Review in time to support fire fighting efforts in 2004. Among the report's conclusions were these real-estate-related recommendations :

  • "There was also a firm recognition that many subdivisions in the interface were not designed to mitigate wildfire risks, nor were the dwellings constructed to reduce wildfire hazards. We believe that local governments and individual homeowners have recognized the risks and are now prepared to follow the best information available to correct for past inaction."

  • "The topic of fuel load reduction through prescribed burns is perhaps the best example of a strong consensus on what formerly had been a very controversial and divisive debate. Simply put, almost everyone who gave advice to the Review Team agreed that it was better to accept short-term inconvenience and irritation in favour of long-term reduction in hazard and cost."

  • The insurance industry should encourage and reward, through its rate-setting process, dwellings and communities built to acceptable standards.

  • The province should review and amend Land Use Plans to incorporate fire management considerations. Fire experts must be available to influence and participate in land management planning.

Recommendations also include the formal adoption of the FireSmart standard for new and existing private and public property, developed by Partners in Protection , an Alberta-based coalition of professionals representing national, provincial, and municipal associations and government agencies responsible for emergency services, land-use planning, and forest/park management and research. Its interactive interface planner, entitled FireSmart: Protecting Your Community From Wildfire , provides individuals with the necessary tools in planning and mitigating the risk of fire in interface areas. The manual's many practical suggestions include:

  • When fires hit an area, they may have an impact on community services. Always be prepared to live for days, perhaps longer, without electricity, running water or outside help. Prepare-ahead protection remedies include solid plywood shutters for every opening and vent when fire is near.

  • Remove the greatest cause of fire loss by replacing untreated wooden shake roofs and wooden decks with fire-resistant materials such as metal, slate, tile, or asphalt shingles and using only non-combustible siding.

  • Landscape designs should include a defensible space -- at least a 10-metre zone around your buildings and a lessened fire risk for at least another 20 meters. This is achieved by planting only fairly fire-resistant plants (e.g., broad-leaf deciduous trees, low shrubs, ferns, annuals), spacing them moderately far apart and keeping the area clear of debris.

Lightening accounts for at least 35 per cent of all fires which, because of remoteness, may cause a high percentage of the damage on average, but this still leaves human activity on the hook for the balance of the damage.

Building departments have the use of both local building codes and bylaws to control building in areas at risk to interface fires, but property owners benefit from taking the initiative themselves.

Is your property at risk? Complete the FireSmart assessment of your home or contact your local fire agency for help evaluating your property. If you are building, incorporate FireSmart design for a safe future and, perhaps, a better insurance rate.

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