Fire Fighting in Canada

Features
NFPA Impact: The importance of being (fire) smart

April 18, 2022
By Laura King

Back in 2011, after a spring wildfire swept through Slave Lake, I interviewed Fire Chief Jamie Coutts for a story for this magazine. It’s been 11 years since that wind driven, weather- and climate-change affected fire roared through a community that was aware of and alert to wildfire. Nothing could have stopped that fire. 

If you are in the wildland urban interface, or if your municipality is at risk of wildfire, it’s critical that your residents embrace FireSmart principles, and that neighbours work together to build FireSmart communities.

Slave Lake is a terrific example of positive change, community engagement, government support and resilience. In the years since 2011, Slave Lake has redoubled its efforts to implement FireSmart principles and increase resilience to wildfire. I was honoured to visit Slave Lake in 2018. I stopped at the FireSmart interpretive centre just outside town and walked the trail through the boreal forest with signs that explain how the fire happened, the impact on the ecology, and the need to understand how to live with wildfire.

Slave Lake’s FireSmart committee, with the support of FireSmart Alberta, has moved mountains to educate residents about best practices, fire-resistant building materials and vegetation, and evacuation preparation. Talking to Coutts after the Slave Lake fire, he remembered having read an earlier Fire Fighting in Canada article by Lou Wilde, the former deputy chief in West Kelowna, about the 2003 Okanagan Mountain fire. Wilde described the agony of having to decide which homes to let burn, and which to try to save, a decision which, in some cases, was made easier if homeowners had applied FireSmart principles to the property. Those homes were less susceptible to embers and, therefore, easier to defend.

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“I credit that article for helping me understand that we had to do something different than we had ever done before,” Coutts said. 

Wilde wrote another piece in 2009, about the West Kelowna Complex fire, and included a sidebar listing actions recommend by FireSmart Canada that homeowners could take to make their properties more resilient to wildfire, things like pruning tree branches to a height of two metres or more and storing firewood away from the house. Since then, FireSmart Canada and its provincial and territorial partners have refined its recommendations for homeowners, developed materials and resources for builders, grown its Wildfire Community Preparedness Day program, further developed the Home Partners Program for home assessments, created the FireSmart Begins at Home app, revamped its Local FireSmart Representative training, instituted a FireSmart 101 course, created the Ember the FireSmart Fox mascot and its associated educational materials for children, increased its staff, and merged with the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre to become the national voice of wildfire mitigation and prevention.

NFPA supports FireSmart Canada through staff time, a seat on the FireSmart Canada advisory committee, collaboration with Firewise USA, and shared resources. While Firewise USA is working diligently through its Outthink Wildfire program to encourage policy change to protect the wildland urban interface, in Canada education is the mandate.

We know about 53 per cent of wildfires are human caused (lightning is a close second at 47 per cent), but the data maintained at the national level does not allow for a detailed analysis, so it’s tough to pinpoint whether campfires or sparks from ATVs cause more fires.

Regardless, given the impact of climate change on the length and intensity of the wildfire season, and data showing that learning to live with wildfire is the only option, education needs to be a national focus.

FireSmart Canada’s website provides free resources your fire department can download, courses your firefighters can take and programs your municipality can embrace. 

FireSmart Canada now has active FireSmart neighbourhoods from coast to coast, FireSmart champions in dozens of communities, a stable of new Local FireSmart Representatives, a fist full of new staff in programming, communications and in technical roles, and support of the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers.

We’re on the precipice of the 2022 wildfire season. It’s imperative that we work to outsmart wildfire using the tools provided by FireSmart Canada and its partners, The Co-operators, the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, Intact Centre for Climate Adaptation, the Canadian Red Cross, the provincial and territorial natural resources agencies, and our Indigenous collaborators.

Visit firesmartcanada.ca, or contact me to start your FireSmart journey. Follow FireSmart Canada on Twitter at @FireSmartCanada. •


Laura King is NFPA’s regional director for Canada. Contact her at lking@nfpa.org. @LauraKingNFPA.