Wildfire — reducing the risks

How community action makes all the difference

Janet Moje
Cedar hedges are like jerry cans - highly combustible in an ember storm and should never be located within 10 meters of wood structures.
Cedar hedges are like jerry cans - highly combustible in an ember storm and should never be located within 10 meters of wood structures.
Janet Moje PHOTO

In the last article, the focus was on our homes and what we can do individually to reduce our wildfire risk. This time we will look at what is involved in reducing our risks as a community.

After researching this topic, I have become more aware of fire hazards in my everyday life. I've assessed my property and scared myself to the point where I am making it a priority to reduce my risk as soon as I can. Driving around the village I was amazed at how many hazards we have inside our town. But what can be done about them? There are many players involved in making our village safer. 

To reduce wildfire hazards, community efforts require property owners, all levels of government, and Simpcw to work together because the risks overlap boundaries and can provide fire pathways for wildfires to quickly expand. If you have a trail of fuel, it will follow it. We are fortunate because all these different entities seem willing to join forces for the betterment of our communities.

A tale of two communities, and lessons learned from each

June 2017/Logan Lake: A campfire that was not completely extinguished spread through the forest, but luckily, it didn't turn into a catastrophic fire but was kept to half a hectare. But was it luck? Not according to the Fire Chief Dan Leighton. It was because the town conducted extensive wildfire mitigation. Removal of ladder fuels including tall grass, shrubs and low branches kept the fire from reaching the canopy where it is harder to contain. Read the full article here

May 2016/Fort McMurray: Alan Westhaver of ForestWise Environmental Consulting Ltd. investigated the Fort McMurray fire and his conclusions are eye-opening. More than 50% homes that burned were ignited by embers. No homes investigated were ignited by contact with flames from forest vegetation. Less than 5% ignited due to radiant heat.

Survival is not random or due to good luck. 81% of all homes that survived had a low rating according to FireSmart principles, and up to 89% in matched pairs (side by side homes with similar exposure and construction, one burned, one survived). Having non-compliant vegetation within 30 meters around your home escalates your vulnerability by 50-75%, and almost guarantees ignition. Non-compliant or vegetation fuels (veg/fuels) includes cedars and junipers - the "jerry can" shrubs, bark mulch, long grass, debris like pine cones and needles, low hanging branches, coniferous trees.

Many homes were at risk in Fort McMurray because of adjacent properties with hazards overlapping their zone 1 (10 meters around the home). Westhaver reported, "[the] biggest difference between surviving and burned homes was the amount of veg/fuel in Priority Zone 1."

Homes that don't survive: 80-90% caused by embers that find fuels to ignite within 10m of the home.
Homes that do survive: 85-90% of homes without flammable roofs and 10m of clearance will survive a wildfire.

During a wildfire all resources are overwhelmed. But contrary to what most might think, more resources is not the answer, prevention is. "Start at home, work your way outwards," advises Westhaver. Read the full report here, or watch this three-minute video.

Like many empty lots in Valemount, woody shrubs and long grasses combine with low branches to create ladders to the upper canopy and provide fire pathways for rapid spread.
Like many empty lots in Valemount, woody shrubs and long grasses combine with low branches to create ladders to the upper canopy and provide fire pathways for rapid spread.
Janet Moje PHOTO

Part of being a good neighbour means reducing the fire risk in overlapping zones.

Fire is like water, it moves in the path of least resistance. A wooden fence or an overhanging tree between houses will lead an active fire from one to the next. It's these fire pathways that need to be eliminated within the community.

We need to be mindful of overlapping zones. What we do on our property can increase the risk of our neighbour's home. For example, it is great that we build our firewood pile away from our house, but building it at the edge of our property where it is 10 feet away from our neighbour's home puts them at risk. Likewise, owners of bare lots need to consider that leaving the lot to grow wild increases fire risk to adjacent properties and homes.

Good Neighbour Bylaws

4.9 No owner or occupier of a property shall allow any grasses or other weeds growing thereon to be in excess of 20.32 cm (8 inches) in height. The grasses or other weeds shall be cut and removed from the property, or cause to be cut down in such a manner to prevent blowing.

4.11 No owner or occupier shall cause or permit any trees or other growths that create a safety hazard to remain on the property of that owner or occupier.

The previous council recognized health and safety as their top priority during strategic planning, and it is soon time to revisit the village's priorities. In the meantime, health and safety is still their top priority - clean water, clean air and safety of its citizens, which includes safety from wildfires. Now might be the time to become a FireSmart Community.

Mayor Owen Torgerson agreed the timing is good for thinning private and Crown land. Wood markets are strong, even for pine and hemlock so a landowner can harvest timber, thin their lots to make them more FireSmart, and possibly get a cheque in their pocket.

Some corridors are more difficult such as the property alongside the railroad tracks. Part CN lands, part Crown land, and part private land, it can be difficult to determine ownership of the deadfall in those areas. Cooperation and communication between these three are necessary to make the area safe.

When asked about building a firebreak around the village to reduce wildfire risks, Amanda Reynolds, Fire Information Officer with BC Wildfire Services replied, "The most effective way to lower the wildfire risk in Valemount is for private property owners to introduce FireSmart principles on their property."

The cost of cleanup

As of January 1, 2019: landfill costs for land-clearing debris greater than three inches in diameter will start at a cost of $20 per passenger truck load. This can be problematic since people may choose to illegally dump this debris in the woods for free, which adds fuel for wildfires. Another free alternative is for people to burn this debris in their own backyards, which adds to our air quality issues. Perhaps the solution is to offer chipping services because chipped branches are easily composted.

In the next article, we will examine the Robson Valley’s fire risk and what is required to become a FireSmart Community.