‘We’re going to see more Fort McMurrays’: wildfire safety advocate

Click to play video: 'Experts say Canada’s forested communities need to do more to protect themselves from wildfires'
Experts say Canada’s forested communities need to do more to protect themselves from wildfires
WATCH ABOVE: Despite devastating wildfires in Fort McMurray, Slave Lake and Kelowna, researchers and experts say many Canadian communities still aren't taking wildfire threats seriously enough. Fletcher Kent reports on the efforts to educate Canadians and get governments even more involved – Jul 20, 2016

Despite recent major wildfires in two Alberta communities, experts say Canadians aren’t paying enough attention to protecting forested communities from fire.

Alan Westhaver is investigating why some Fort McMurray homes burned and some did not during the May wildfire.

He recently led a session with the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR). Westhaver and officials from the ICLR both say people living in forested communities are not doing enough to “firesmart” their homes.

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

“Unless we do something now, we’re going to see more Fort McMurrays and more of them and more of them,” the ICLR’s Glenn McGillivray said.

“Now is the time to strike. There’s a window of opportunity where people are listening,” McGillivray added. “Not just in Fort McMurray but in at-risk communities right across the country.”

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The FireSmart program outlines what homeowners and communities can do to reduce the damage caused by wildfires.

McGillivray says many municipalities are doing good things, like removing trees and creating fire breaks around a town.

However, he says many homeowners still are not. For example, too many people still have firewood stacked next to their house or clumps of trees planted near their home.

In fact, Westhaver studied Kelowna’s rebuild. In 2003, 239 homes were destroyed by a wildfire there. Westhaver concluded many of those homeowners have done a “poor” job protecting their rebuilt houses.

READ MORE: 10 years later: Remembering the Okanagan Mountain Park fire

“Education and information has to get out there and people have to realize they play a very crucial role in risk reduction of wildfire, especially on private property,” McGillivray said.

He added government can do more as well. Alberta does offer FireSmart grants to municipalities. That money can be used for education and to protect public land. However, McGillivray would like to see more incentives or even regulations that would get homeowners to improve private property.

McGillivray says this is a national problem too. About 11 million Canadians live in forested areas and he says Ottawa should get more involved in protecting them. McGillivray is calling on the federal government to fund a national FireSmart program.

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Whitecourt officials would appreciate any extra help.

The northern Alberta community is surrounded by forest.

Officials have spent more than a million dollars protecting their town.

This year, four students were hired to thin the forest around Whitecourt in accordance with FireSmart principles.

It took two weeks for them to finish 0.2 hectares of forest and there are 89 hectares left to complete. Then, fire officials want to start work on a fire break that surrounds the town and is five kilometres deep.

But the community says it needs help.

“We would be looking at millions of dollars to get it done over the next few years,” Whitecourt Mayor Maryann Chichak said. “I’m hoping to see after what happened in Fort McMurray and the resources [the federal government] had to put behind that, that they will take a look at some of the proactive measures.”

Chichak and Whitecourt Fire Chief Brian Wynn say educating Whitecourt homeowners has been going well.

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They say the Fort McMurray fire increased FireSmart awareness. Wynn says the town’s FireSmart summer students have been visible and loud as they clear brush. They get people thinking about what can be done to protect private property.

The FireSmart team is also helping Whitecourt residents get rid of any trees they remove from yards.

“The buy-in from the residents has been fantastic. So they’ve pledged to continue it on every year and go just a little bit farther into the forest,” Wynn said.

“They’re helping me save the town but they’re helping themselves save their house.”

The province has allocated $35 million over the last five years to the FireSmart program.

READ MORE: Millions of dollars for fire protection left unspent 

The minister responsible says government will continue to offer grants to communities.

When asked if he’s considering building code changes or other measures to push homeowners to better protect their property, Oneil Carlier said, “Nothing on the table for now. I think if you have a really robust FireSmart program in the community, that’ll go a tremendously long way.”


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