FIRE SMART: The storm is coming

Residents need to be aware of the potential wildfire threat in the Okanagan

Driving back from the Western Wildfire Conference in Kelowna through a torrential downpour, I was finding it extremely difficult to digest some of the information I was bringing back with me to Vernon.

Not that it was confusing but just how I was going to communicate it to those that need it and would they believe me anyway?

The problem is that in the North Okanagan we have been saying the same thing since 2003, “The storm is coming and people need to protect themselves from wildfire by Firesmarting their property!” Sure we’ve had some close calls but nothing of catastrophic proportions, at least not in the North Okanagan anyway and with all this rain and cool weather we should be alright again this year.

Besides, even if something major does happen, we have the Ministry of Forests and the fire department to protect us! I for one look forward to the hot Okanagan summer and quite frankly, the hotter the better! Those fantastic summers are why I live here! So what’s the big fuss?

Unfortunately, whether we choose to believe it or not, there is a price for that hot summer weather and it is an increased risk of wildfire. Each year along with the loss of homes, the cost of suppressing wildfires to the taxpayers of British Columbia is increasing at an alarming rate and the experts are now telling us that large wildfires are no longer a once in a lifetime event. Along with the impact of global warming, the buildup of forest fuels, beetle kill as well as the increase of the number of homes being built in the interface, the number and intensity of large wildfires is also increasing. More to the point, it indicates that the North Okanagan where we possess all these same problems has just been lucky and it is not a matter of will it happen but when!

So enough of the bad news! The positive side to all this is that over the past 10 years we are seeing actual proof of what works and what doesn’t as far as preventing and protecting ourselves from wildfire. Non- combustible construction materials, fuel modification, sprinkler protection, increased spatial separation of homes and fire breaks are all tools that home owners and local governments are using to innovatively adapt their communities to protect them from wildfire. We also know that it is the fire brands from crown fires and combustible roofing that are responsible for the majority of the damage and that a good Fire smart strategy is the proven defense against them. (Fire brands are small pieces of burning wood from the small branches of the crowns of trees that are blown in the wind ahead of the fire.)

In fact, probably one of the most important things that we have discovered over the past 10 years is that the Firesmart Program really works and properties that have initiated a Firesmart strategy are usually the ones that survive a wildfire. Incredibly, it has even been calculated that for every dollar that is invested in protecting property with a Firesmart treatment, there is a $517 savings from damage that will be avoided in the event that property is subjected to a wildfire. Bottom line, the information at this year’s Western Wildfire Conference just continued to reinforce something I learned a while back from an old Forestry Guru who warned me that “If you are not willing to do the work to prepare ahead of time and you happen to experience a wildfire, there is a really good chance that you are going to have a very bad day!” Honestly, when you think about it, can we really afford not to utilize a Firesmart strategy when it comes to protecting something as precious as our families and our homes?

So, if you are not the gambling type and you want to protect your home by or in the wildland, here again are a few simple Firesmart tips to get you started.

Home:

Remove all combustibles (firewood, lumber, debris piles) a minimum of 10 metres away from the house.

Remove all dead needles and leaves from your roof and gutters.

Clean dead needles and leaves and any combustibles from underneath home openings (decks, porches) and skirt or screen those openings.

Ensure your fireplace chimney is screened, has been recently cleaned, and is free of overhanging branches.

If you are thinking of changing your roofing, use a ULC Class A (non-combustible) roofing material such as metal, clay/ceramic tile, Unicrete recycled rubber, or asphalt shingle.

Yard:

Rake and remove all dead and/or down vegetation (trees, shrubs, needles, leaves, grass) from your yard and within a minimum of 3 metres from your house.

Remove flammable vegetation next your house (juniper, native grasses, spruce/pine/fir trees).

Keep your grass regularly mowed or weed-whipped and use the sprinkler to keep it green and moist.

Other:

Develop an evacuation plan and ensure all family members are aware of it.

Ensure you have enough hose and sprinklers to reach the top of your roof and a ladder to install them when necessary.

Have some fire tools on-hand in a readily accessible spot (axe, shovel, water can).

Vernon Fire Rescue Services wants you to have a fabulous summer and enjoy the beautiful Okanagan to its fullest. Provide yourself with a peace of mind when it comes to wildfires and protect your home and your family by becoming Firesmart!

You can obtain a copy of the Firesmart Manual for Home Owners at Vernon Fire Rescue Services, Fire Hall #1, across from city hall.

Lawrie Skolrood is a deputy fire chief with Vernon Fire Rescue Services.