Comment: March 2019

Preventing wildfire tragedies
February 15, 2019
Written by
Everybody, it seems, has an opinion on how to stop wildfires.

U.S. President Donald Trump famously weighed in last year, suggesting that California should copy Finland in raking forest floors to prevent them.

But let’s not go there.

In this column, I’d like to write about some intelligent recommendations that were put forth by a team of researchers at the University of Calgary Schulich School of Engineering.

Wildfires are part of life in Canada. Always have been. Always will be.

Last season was an exceptionally busy year, especially for wildland firefighters in Ontario and British Columbia.

Ontario experienced one of its busiest fire seasons in the province’s history, with more than 1,000 wildland fires.

B.C also had a tough year. It was the second worst in the province’s history, with fires burning more than 9,450 square kilometres of land.

The question, then, is how do we prevent wildfires from spreading and causing devastation to communities?

Researchers at Schulich believe they have an answer.

The team used spatial satellite images to study the devastating 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray and a 2011 fire in Slave Lake that resulted in evacuation of 15,000 residents.

Purpose was to determine how civic design and planning can fuel or prevent the spread of wildfires.

The study was sponsored by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. It made a number of recommendations on how such fires can be stopped or slowed.

The team found destruction of many buildings in Fort McMurray and Slave Lake could have been predicted based on the nearness of trees and vegetation to residential neighbourhoods.

Researchers also determined that buffer zones around the communities were vulnerable because there was forested area within them.

The study concluded there needs to be more wide, open spaces around communities to prevent catastrophic wildfires.

According to the study, placing ring roads, and schools or businesses with large parking lots near wooded areas on the edge of a town would act as a firebreak and prevent the spread of wildfires.

By the same token, stands of trees and bushes left in buffer zones for aesthetics is a bad idea in areas that are prone to forest fires.

Seems logical to me. Forty per cent of Canada is covered in trees and an average of 7,000 fires burn 2.5 million hectares of land across the country each year. If humans are going to reside in areas prone to wildfires, we have to come up with a safeguard.

The recommendations from the recent study might not be a cure-all for the problem, but they’re certainly a start.
Wildfires are a fact of life in Canada, but experts say the seasons could be longer and worse in future due to climate change. Let’s see how much you know about the subject of wildfires. Try out the quiz below.

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