Salmon Arm  

Salmon Arm wildfire mitigation town hall touts effectiveness of FireSmart BC program

Wildfire mitigation at home

Small changes made around the home can make all the difference in mitigating wildfire danger.

That was the message delivered to residents who attended the City of Salmon Arm's wildfire mitigation town hall meeting, held on March 27. The city hosted the event in partnership with the Salmon Arm Fire Department and FireSmartBC representatives.

Mayor Alan Harrison acted as master of ceremonies for the event, and several other members of Salmon Arm council were in attendance. Chase Mayor David Lepsoe and Neskonlith elder Louis Thomas were also present at the meeting, which was attended by about 40 residents in person and online.

Several local experts gave presentations about what the city is doing to mitigate the risk of wildfires and what residents can do to protect their own properties.

Alan Westhaver, former national park warden and wildland-urban fire behaviour expert, provided a pre-recorded presentation explaining what turns wildland forest fires into urban fire disasters that destroy people’s homes.

Westhaver has studied the aftermath of numerous wildfire disasters in Western Canada, including Lytton, Fort McMurray, Kelowna and Slave Lake.

“We need to realize that it's not that big flames are rolling over a community like a tidal wave, the fire is burning in the community with the fuels that we have out and around our homes,” Westhaver said.

Westhaver said the majority of wildfires are quickly controlled.

“Virtually all of the wildfires, 97 per cent of them, are controlled very quickly at a very small size,” Westhaver said. “But it's the other 3 per cent of these wildland fires that account for almost all of the total area burned. And these are the fires that occur under high winds and very dry fuel situations.”

He explained when these extreme conditions wildfires come near urban areas, they quickly cause multiple simultaneous ignitions of structures which overwhelms any possible firefighting response.

“The good news about this sequence is that it's not un-defeatable, it has a weak spot point, and that is if multiple structures do not ignite in a very short span of time,” Westhaver said.

“This is the weak spot, this is where we can tackle this problem and it's pretty simple logic: if houses don't ignite, they can't burn, and if they don't burn, we don't have a disaster.”

A change in approach

Westhaver said this type of problem can’t be easily solved with more firefighting resources.

“Under these kinds of conditions, any conceivable emergency response will be ineffective,” Westhaver said.

“There are limits just like anything else, to fire control, and under those extreme conditions, those are exceeded. So instead of calling for more fire guards or fuel breaks or equipment and personnel, we need to change our approach to this problem.”

Westhaver said embers are the cause of wildfire disasters that lead to the destruction of homes.

“They are critically important in these situations,” Westhaver said. “What we know is that at least 90 per cent of the homes are ignited by embers.”

He explained while most embers fall close to the fire, they are also capable of travelling long distances.

“Mostly they are small, mostly they fall close to within half a kilometre or so, but they're capable of travelling many kilometres,” Westhaver said. “And we saw this past summer again in Kelowna, embers travelled a distance of 12 kilometres across Okanagan Lake, and started multiple fires on the opposite side of the lake.”

'A solvable problem'

Westhaver reiterated combustible materials around peoples homes are very dangerous in a wildfire situation.

“In the wildland urban fire, the fuel is provided by the things in and around our homes, in our backyards. And that heat is provided by these burning embers, which fall and accumulate and will ignite anything that's combustible,” Westhaver said.

“We're dealing with a structure ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem. This is the perception that we need to take on and adopt, and that is a solvable problem.”

Westhaver’s presentation included numerous videos including footage from the Fort McMurray fire in 2016 which showed embers starting fires in people’s front yards. These fires quickly grew in the span of 30 or 40 seconds.

Westhaver explained the importance of the home ignition zone, a 30 metre bubble stretching from the walls of a residence. He said keeping this area free from easily combustible materials is of the utmost importance in mitigating wildfire damage.

“The home ignition zones in dense residential areas overlap. …That allows one burning home to expose neighbouring homes if they're close to each other,” Westhaver said. “The burning materials in my property might not ignite my house, but they might ignite my neighbour's house.”

He said this adds to the "social dynamic" of the problem, and means communities and fire departments must work together to make neighbourhoods ignition resistant.

"This is a doable thing," he said.

Importance of FireSmart program

Westhaver ended his presentation by saying the FireSmart program is the best way to mitigate the danger of wildfires.

“The best way that I can recommend for us to deal with this is by adopting the FireSmart Canada neighbourhood recognition program,” Westhaver said. “B.C. is a hotbed for this program, it is led by citizens and guided by your fire department.

“It provides you with the information and understanding of how to tackle these problems.”

Charlie Bird a local resident who led efforts in South Canoe to become a FireSmart neighbourhood, provided a presentation on the efforts he and his neighbours made to help mitigate their wildfire risk.

Other presentations were provided from Salmon Arm Fire Chief Brad Shirley and Salmon Arm FireSmart representative Carmen Guidos.

There were several local FireSmart representatives present at the meeting, and interested residents were able to sign up for a free home assessment at the event.

Salmon Arm residents who would like a FireSmart home assessment can sign up by calling Guidos at the Salmon Arm Fire Services office at 250-803-4067, or by emailing one of the local FireSmart representatives listed on the FireSmart BC website.

A recording of the event is available on the City of Salmon Arm website for anyone who was unable to attend.

More Salmon Arm News