Fire Fighting in Canada

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NFPA Impact: June 2010

Canada has an inglorious past with regard to wildland urban interface (WUI) fires. Entire Canadian communities have been destroyed, including Vancouver in 1886, where 1,000 structures were devastated in 45 minutes with 28 killed and 3,000 left homeless.

June 3, 2010
By Sean Tracey

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Canada has an inglorious past with regard to wildland urban interface (WUI) fires. Entire Canadian communities have been destroyed, including Vancouver in 1886, where 1,000 structures were devastated in 45 minutes with 28 killed and 3,000 left homeless. In 1908, the town of Fernie, B.C., was burned. And in 1911, fire gutted the community of Porcupine, Ont., and claimed 73 lives.

Many of the first building bylaws in Canada were introduced to counter the threat of wildfire. Unfortunately, we seem to have forgotten these origins as there are no provisions in the national codes to address the wildland/urban interface. Communities are on their own to set conditions – if they are even permitted to do so.

Enforcement of building and development standards in the WUI zone falls into a regulatory void. In the absence of any direction, I suggest that Canadian fire service leaders need to take the lead on this issue, as they will, unfortunately, be the ones with lives at risk at the hot front.

We need to educate the public so they understand that unless they build to higher standards in these areas the fire service will not come to their defence. Like development standards for flood plain construction, any community can adopt specific bylaws requiring enhanced development requirements in at-risk areas. Structural survivability has been proven in a number of studies and in recent fires and there is a standard that encompasses these. NFPA’s Building and Fire Code requires that any new development in a recognized wildland/urban interface area must meet NFPA 1144. 

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NFPA 1144 has been written so that it can be adopted by any municipality. It empowers the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) in these areas to be able to take action to minimize the threat, including requiring design review and restrictions on access and outdoor fires. It presents basic criteria for fire agencies, land-use planners, architects, developers and local government for planning development in areas that may be threatened by wildfire. This standard, when used co-operatively among key agencies, will provide guidance in the design and development of Firewise communities in or near wildland fire-prone areas.

According to NFPA 1144, property in these at-risk areas shall undergo a wildland fire risk and hazard severity analysis. This shall include a plan developed to address these risks, construction plans approved by the AHJ, specific road design for fire department access, and fire-resistant building design requirements such as roofing materials. It is hoped that the requirements in this document will, firstly, help protect the lives of residents and firefighters when wildfires strike and, secondly, reduce property damage. NFPA 1144 even has enforceable standards on homeowners for property maintenance. It is the standard for fire safe building practices referenced in the Canadian Homeowners FireSmart Manual . The FireSmart manual is a good starting point in educating homeowners about making smart decisions. It is also a good tool to inform them so that they can properly maintain their properties. It does not, however, provide the needed enforceable standards for development of new properties. The B.C. version of the manual has a very good assessment guideline that can be used to determine whether properties are at risk and therefore potential design changes.

After one of the worst wildland urban interface fire seasons on record in 2009, NFPA has launched a new push on the WUI issues. It is recognized that with climate change, beetle infestations and increased human development into wildland areas the problem is going to get worse.

Communities need to begin to act now to mitigate these dangers. To aid in this task, NFPA has brought its considerable resources to bear on the problem. These resources are intended to support the Canadian fire service.

The NFPA has appointed a new person to help lead its Firewise advocacy campaign. David Nuss, previously the NFPA Denver region manager, has taken on this task. A considerable amount of free resources from NFPA have been made available to anyone with access to the Internet. The primary launch point is www.firewise.org. Resources include several online courses for the fire service such as how to conduct a fire risk assessment, water supplies, firefighter safety in the WUI zone, Firewise landscaping and more.

My time and resources are also available to any community wishing to adopt such a bylaw. The Canadian fire service needs to adopt this as its mandate as its leaders can best control the issue. NFPA has the resources to support you.


Sean Tracey, P.Eng., MIFireE, is the Canadian regional
manager of the National Fire Protection Association International and
formerly the Canadian Armed Forces fire marshal. Contact him at
stracey@nfpa.org.


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