May 30, 2016 3:54 pm
Updated: May 31, 2016 1:19 pm

Fort McMurray not only Canadian town facing fire risk: wildfire expert

Canadian communities reassess wildfire risk after Fort McMurray. Shirlee Engel reports.

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Many communities across Canada face far greater risk from wildfire than Fort McMurray, said Mike Flannigan, the director of the University of Alberta’s Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science.

“I’d peg Fort McMurray as kind of in the middle risk zone,” said Flannigan. “Look at Timmins, for example, southern portions of Prince George; take a look at Whitecourt or Grande Prairie – I mean, the list goes on and on.”

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What makes these communities so vulnerable, said Flannigan, is their proximity to highly-combustible conifer forests – such as those that surrounded Fort McMurray.

“Around communities, conifers are the problem,” said Flannigan.

In an interview with Global News conducted during the height of the Fort McMurray crisis, Flannigan said he believes communities should implement a two-kilometer “buffer zone” between themselves and surrounding conifer forests.

“You can have trees, deciduous trees, just not the conifers that are so dangerous,” said Flannigan.

A two-kilometer buffer zone would greatly reduce the spread of wildfires by removing fuel and creating a larger distance for burning embers to travel.

While Flannigan admits such measures will never eliminate the risk of wildfire completely, he believes creating a defensive zone for firefighters and emergency crews to work will not only help safeguard communities, but will also save money in the process.

“Some people say, ‘that’s really expensive – this two kilometers,’” said Flannigan. “But how much did Slave Lake cost? How much is Fort McMurray going to cost?”

Estimates for the total cost of the Fort McMurray blaze have been slow to materialize, with many insurance experts saying it’s still too soon to calculate the damages, but one expert told the CBC the figure could be as high as $9 billion. The total cost of the 2011 Slave Lake fire that destroyed roughly 500 homes and businesses was nearly $750 million.

Flannigan believes a proactive approach to wildfire mitigation is the most effective means of protecting Canadian communities. He also thinks existing programs such as FireSmart need to be expanded, and that public outreach, education and the clearing of vegetation in and around communities should be top priorities for local and provincial governments.

Fort McMurray a “game changer” for Canada’s forested communities

With nearly 90,000 people evacuated and nearly 1,600 homes and businesses destroyed, the Fort McMurray wildfire has forced leaders from across Canada to look at the risks faced by their own communities.

“I think what’s happened in Fort McMurray has really turned our sights on our community,” said Lyn Hall, the mayor of Prince George, B.C.

“I know our administration and our fire department are looking closely at what other measures they may need to take to protect our city from anything that happened such as in Fort McMurray,” he added.

Although Hall said he was a bit shocked to learn his city was among those listed by Flannigan as facing greater risk of wildfire damage than Fort McMurray, he said he understands given his community’s location within the forest.

Experts are currently reviewing the city’s wildfire prevention and mitigation strategy. Hall expects a report to be delivered to city council sometime in June.

While Hall has said both he and city councillors are concerned by the threat of a tragedy on the scale of that seen in Fort McMurray, he insisted officials are prepared to do whatever is necessary to protect residents and their property – including possibly implementing Flannigan’s proposal for a two-kilometer buffer zone.

“We need to look at not so much the cost of mitigation, but what it means to be able to secure the city,” said Hall. “Without question, we’re not going to turn away from any of the recommendations or any of the discussions that are brought forward.”

Hall said the city has done extensive mitigation work since the 2003 Kelowna wildfire that swept across much of the Okanagan. Crews have worked diligently to clear vegetation around urban areas and to educate the population on how to prevent forest fires, he said.

Efforts to stop the spread of the western pine beetle have also contributed to reducing the risk of wildfire, said Hall. These efforts include the removal of pine trees from surrounding forests, which in turn reduces the amount of fuel necessary for powerful forest fires to survive.

Lessons learned

Despite having faced the risk of wildfire for many decades, communities such as Timmins, Ont., still view what happened in Fort McMurray as a wakeup call.

“Fort McMurray obviously puts the severity of these types of events back in the forefront,” said Steve Black, mayor of Timmins. “You have to keep in mind that Timmins’ eyes were opened with the Timmins 9 fire.”

In 2012, the Timmins 9 fire raged for more than five months between May and October. According to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, it was the largest wildfire in Ontario that season. The fire consumed nearly 40,000 hectares and cost roughly $40 million to combat.

“I’m not going to compare the two fires,” said Black, referring to the Fort McMurray blaze.

“But when your own municipality has plumes of smoke going over it, it definitely raises that sense of awareness.”

In January 2015, the government of Ontario sued Canadian National (CN) Railway for $38 million in compensation, claiming the fire was started by a spark from a passing train. The case has yet to be resolved.

Since 2012, Timmins fire service officials and the province have worked to mitigate the threat of future fires by clearing bush and other vegetation in and around the nearly 3,000 square-kilometer municipality.

“I don’t think you can ever say you’re prepared for whatever Mother Nature may throw at you,” said Black. “We are prepared to respond to these types of events in a timely manner, and hopefully keep them under control before it gets to that level – that Fort McMurray scene.”

Although Black doubts a two-kilometer wide buffer zone would be effective or even practical in a community such as Timmins, he and local fire chief Mike Pinto are open to any recommendations that might help protect their city.

“We’re spread out across a vast area,” said Pinto. “So that would make it a little difficult. But you know what? It would be something to look at.”

© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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