Spring is once again upon us, and while the sun and warmth are certainly a welcome break from the cold winter, the threat of wildfire that comes with living in the boreal forest has also returned. While the 2016 wildfire removed the hazard in many places, it remains for the communities that were not directly affected and will return to all areas as the forest regenerates. Each and every resident has a part to play in making our region more resilient to the threat of wildfire, and the biggest step that we can take towards this is to collectively embrace FireSmart and integrate it into our everyday lives. To embrace FireSmart requires us to change our perspective, our understanding of risk and what it means to be safe. It means that we have to reframe our thinking in terms of whether or not we really need that coniferous tree or woodpile close to our home. It means coming to terms with seeing a 30 metre-wide clearing when looking out our windows instead of a dense forest. It means putting safety before aesthetics. Embracing FireSmart requires us all to commit to changing our expectations and habits on a go-forward basis, and I understand that this is no small task. However, I believe that we as a community are more than capable of meeting this challenge.
Understanding FireSmart and how it works is essential in determining how we can mitigate the risk of wildfire. FireSmart Canada describes FireSmart as “living with and managing for wildfire on our landscape.” Note the reference to “our landscape”. Not yours, not mine, not the Municipality’s or the Province’s. Our landscape. It’s our landscape because FireSmart is a shared responsibility that requires each one of us to help mitigate the threat of wildfire. It encompasses seven disciplines: education, vegetation management, legislation and planning, development considerations, interagency cooperation, cross-training and emergency planning. By collaborating across these disciplines, we can and will improve our region’s wildfire resilience.
We all have a role to play when it comes to sharing knowledge on FireSmart and how to best implement it. There are many different ways to educate ourselves, including our learnings from the 2016 wildfire. We’ve learned that many of the homes that were destroyed by the fire were likely ignited through ember transmission, which occurs when embers from the forest fire land on and subsequently ignite combustible elements of residential structures and/or adjacent materials. The risk of ignition due to ember transmission can be significantly reduced by embracing FireSmart recommendations in the Priority Zone 1, which is the first 10 metres around a home. The most important thing you can do to protect your property is ensure that this area is clear of combustibles and debris; keeping these areas clear of materials that are easily ignited, such as woodpiles and dead leaves, will significantly reduce the level of risk to not only your home, but your neighbours’ homes as well. To better understand the science behind ember transmission and the impact it has on wildland urban interface (WUI) fires, I highly recommend reading Alan Westhaver’s report, Why some homes survived: Learning from the Fort McMurray wildland/urban interface fire disaster, a link to which is available at rmwb.ca/firesmart. This report helps us better understand wildfire behaviour in WUI areas, and provides recommendations on what we can do to help mitigate the risk of wildfire moving forward.
The Municipality continues to embrace the learnings found in Westhaver’s report and the 2017 KPMG report: Lessons Learned and Recommendations from the 2016 Horse River Wildfire. We have completed field assessments of unburnt areas as part of the Post-Wildfire Hazard Assessment, which will shape future mitigation projects so that we address areas at risk to wildfire while preserving the environment, maintaining healthy forests, and creating safer communities. This assessment was integral to the development of the 2017 Wildfire Mitigation Strategy, which was adopted by Council and considers measures to reduce the threat of wildfire for communities in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in all seven disciplines of FireSmart. We’ve also updated the Engineering Service Standards to better address FireSmart principles and added requirements for newly developed areas, which includes the requirement for Wildfire Hazard Assessments to be completed for new developments and requirements on tree protection, fuel reduction methods and tree planting. Furthermore, we continue to explore how we can incorporate FireSmart principles into Land Use Bylaws, Area Structure Plans and Municipal Development Plans.
While there is no doubt that we have certainly increased our focus on FireSmart and its importance, the Municipality has been performing vegetation management in the region since 2002. According to Westhaver, all of the isolated homes that survived amidst heavily damaged urban neighbourhoods rated with ‘low’ hazard when vegetation was further than 30 metres from the home, which further reinforces the need for us to perform vegetation management in Priority Zones 2 and 3 (areas that exist from 10 metres to 30 metres, and 30 metres to 180 meters from structures). A “right tree, right place” premise is applied to these projects, which means that certain types of trees can be left where it is appropriate and in alignment with FireSmart principles. This practice, when applied in conjunction with the rest of the FireSmart disciplines, greatly reduces the rate at which a wildfire can spread and is why we have invested in our region’s resiliency by applying FireSmart treatments to more than 180 hectares of land across the region since 2016 wildfire. While there are more vegetation management projects scheduled through 2020, we believe that getting out into the community is equally important so that we can answer your questions about how to protect your property in person.
In 2017, the municipality held 10 different community events where FireSmart was showcased and residents were able to learn more from FireSmart experts. This summer, we’ll be building on these events and meeting with even more residents across the region and I’m extremely happy to tell you that we’re in the process of creating a new program where residents will be able to request an onsite FireSmart home assessment by Regional Emergency Services staff.
In the meantime, I encourage you to check out the resources we’ve developed to help you protect your home and taking the following five easy steps towards becoming FireSmart:
- Know the risks and download the Alberta Wildfire app
- Read the FireSmart Homeowner’s Manual
- Complete a FireSmart Homeowner’s Assessment
- Clear combustibles from Priority Zones 1a and 1b
- Landscape your property in accordance with the RMWB FireSmart Guide to Landscaping
Despite the fact that our landscape has changed as a result of the 2016 wildfire, we will always be surrounded by boreal forest. How we choose to move forward and embrace this change to make ourselves more resilient is up to us. We need to learn how to live and enjoy all the natural beauty the boreal forest provides and still be a vibrant, sustainable community we call home. By working together as a community and each one of us doing our part, our region will be safer for years to come. Challenge yourself, your family, your friends and your neighbours to be FireSmart. Visit rmwb.ca/FireSmart for a complete list of resources and follow us at @RMWoodBuffalo on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on tips and events.
Stay safe and stay FireSmart!
FireSmart Priority Zones
The FireSmart program identifies 3 priority zones that must be managed to reduce the wildfire threat to your home. Priority Zones 1 and 2 are the most critical– this is known as the Home Ignition Zone (HIZ). Homeowners, builders and landscapers should focus on reducing the risks in the HIZ.
Characteristics of fire-resistant plants:
- Moist, supple leaves
- Little dead wood and tendency not to accumulate dead material
- Water-like sap with little or no odour
- Low amount of sap or resin material
Characteristics of highly flammable plants:
- Contain fine, dry, dead material within the plant
- Plant stem, branches and leaves contain volatile waxes, terpenes or oils
- Leaves are aromatic
- Gummy, resinous sap with a strong odour
- Loose papery bark
- Avoid landscaping with highly flammable plants around your home.