FireSmart in the Wood Buffalo Region
As a resident living in the Wood Buffalo Region, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the term FireSmart. Perhaps you’ve seen the bright red FireSmart project signs during a leisurely hike through the Birchwood Trails. Maybe you’ve stopped by a FireSmart information booth at one of the Municipality’s many Urban Market events. Regardless of how you came to hear about FireSmart in the region, the signs and the booths suggest one important fact: the FireSmart program is here.
For those who haven’t heard of FireSmart, it is a national program that has been adopted by communities across Canada to reduce the risk of wildfire damage. The program focuses on taking a seven-discipline approach to mitigating wildfire risk in communities living near densely-forested areas.
Here in the Wood Buffalo Region, we live in the heart of the Boreal Forest. Because of this, we are one of many communities in Western Canada that live with the threat of wildfire. As a result, we have a pronounced need to implement effective mitigation measures in and around our communities, to help protect our homes, our properties and our neighbourhoods.
This is where the FireSmart program comes in.
How the FireSmart Program Has Evolved in Our Region
While many believe the program was introduced in the region following the May 2016 Horse River Wildfire, the reality is that the FireSmart has existed here for more than a decade. In fact, FireSmart vegetation management projects have taken place throughout the region since the early 2000s. But the early days of the FireSmart program focused largely on vegetation management alone.
Since the 2016 wildfire, we’ve come to realize that mitigating wildfire risk in our communities takes more than just managing the vegetation. It should also include other key initiatives in the areas of education, emergency planning, legislation, development, interagency cooperation and cross training. When we take a multi-discipline approach to wildfire mitigation, we can make a measurable impact on reducing our risk in a more widespread, efficient and timely manner.
A New Way Forward
In 2017, the Municipality accepted the RMWB Wildfire Mitigation Strategy. It outlined the risk of wildfire to all 10 communities within the region. Notably, it showed that four communities were identified as being high-extreme risk for a community-level wildfire, and five were listed as being high-extreme risk for a landscape-level wildfire.
While this strategy helped identify high-risk areas for wildfire activity, it also chartered a new path forward for managing that risk. The research presented 15 recommendations for mitigating the risk of wildfire damage, many of which centered around the implementation of FireSmart measures.
With this knowledge in hand, the FireSmart team working within the Municipality set out to launch several projects and initiatives within the region.
FireSmart in the Birchwood Trails
In 2016, the Municipality started work on the Birchwood Trails Phase 2 FireSmart project. The goal of this project was to reduce the risk of wildfire damage to nearby homes and neighbourhoods, by treating densely-forested areas along the trail system.
In March 2019 this project was fully completed, and 125 hectares of land along the perimeter of the Birchwood Trails was treated with FireSmart prescriptions.
The perimeter was created by removing all dead, down and unhealthy trees, and by thinning and pruning combustible evergreens in the project areas. To minimize ground disturbance and preserve the natural landscape of the trails, all work was completed by hand and debris was disposed of on-site through supervised burns.
The Municipality’s other FireSmart projects are conducted in a similar manner. Crews always work to minimize ground disturbance in project areas. When supervised burns are required, they are monitored at all times and conducted only when conditions are safe to do so.
Healthy Forests and Safer Communities
FireSmart vegetation management projects aim to treat densely-forested areas next to developed communities. Often, this involves removing select trees and clearing debris from the forest floor. While it may look like this process is taking away a part of the forest, this activity is actually stimulating healthy re-growth in mixedwood tree stands.
When highly-combustible evergreen trees and surface fuels are removed, conditions become favourable for fast-growing deciduous trees to populate the area. This helps to create a species conversion in project areas, which helps produce a forest that is less combustible. So, not only will re-growth happen quickly, it will also grow back in with more desirable types of trees.
With that said, when enough deciduous trees come back and create a shaded and sheltered environment, we will see the reintegration of evergreen species that will need to be managed once again in about five to 10 years’ time.
“FireSmart is never a one and done initiative,” said Jody Butz, Fire Chief, Regional Emergency Services. “The forest is always changing, always growing and in order to continue to reduce our risk, we need to monitor the work that’s been done, and re-visit it when that increased risk returns in the future.”
It’s Time to Think FireSmart – Together
Mitigating the risk of wildfire damage to our community is a shared responsibility. We can’t rely on vegetation management projects alone to protect our homes and neighbourhoods. As a resident, there are a number of simple and cost-effective steps you can take to reduce your risk of wildfire damage.
The Non-Combustible Zone and Zone 1 are key areas to focus on when taking FireSmart action at home. Changes made in these zones can measurably reduce your risk of damage in the event of a wildfire.
“As a Municipality, we’re working to treat our forests with FireSmart prescriptions to better protect our communities, but we also need our residents to champion the FireSmart program at home,” said Butz. “When we all work together to make FireSmart a fabric of our community, we can make a real difference in reducing our risk.”
Practice FireSmart at Home
Taking FireSmart action at home doesn’t have to be hard or costly. Start by implementing these simple solutions:
Remove leaves, pine needles and other debris from your roof and gutters
Mow grass and weeds within 10 metres of your home to 10 centimetres in length or less
Create a 1.5 non-combustible zone around your home and deck. This can be done by raking down to mineral soil, laying rock or adding concrete
Move combustible items such as firewood piles and propane tanks at least 10 metres away from your home
Clear vegetation and debris along both sides of combustible fence lines
When renovating your home or deck, consider using non-combustible materials such as stucco siding, fiberglass decking and/or asphalt shingles
FireSmart by The Numbers
Since 2016, the FireSmart team has initiated vegetation management projects in several areas including Anzac, Conklin, Gregoire Lake Estates, Fort Chipewyan and the Birchwood Trail System. Projects have already been fully completed in a number of those communities, and once all projects wrap up, the Municipality will have treated approximately 400 hectares of land with FireSmart prescriptions, that’s about the size of 750 football fields!
|Anzac - Phase 2||99.7 hectares||On-going|
|Conklin – Phase 1||45 hectares||Complete|
|Gregoire Lake Estates - Phase 2||7.9 hectares||Complete|
|Fort Chipewyan – Phase 1||62.1 hectares||On-going|
|Fort Chipewyan Mulching||13.2 hectares||Complete|
|Birchwood Trails – Phase 2||125 hectares||Complete|
|Burnt Tree Harvest Removal||46.7 hectares||Complete|
To learn more about FireSmart in the Wood Buffalo Region, visit rmwb.ca/FireSmart.