Wildfire threat is a reality

The responsibility for community wildfire reduction is a shared one

It’s been almost 10 years since the catastrophic 2003 Okanagan Mountain fire and three years since the 2009 West Kelowna fires.

The last couple years, inclusive of this one, it seemed like the Okanagan would escape the fire season. This notion was quashed late in this season as the Okanagan repeatedly experienced interface wildfires, most recently the wildfire in Peachland that destroyed several homes.

As a past government wildland firefighter and current registered professional forester, I make my living specializing in wildfire and fuel management in the Okanagan. I’ve been involved with wildfires in some capacity for 20 years. I’ve seen the awesome power of wildfire. I’ve seen valiant efforts on the part of wildland and structural firefighters, as well as amazing flying by pilots, to save people’s homes.

I’ve heard the ‘armchair quarterbacks’ criticize suppression tactics and efforts of my fellow firefighters, regardless of their efforts and the dangers they face on the fireline or in the air. Much has changed in my 20 years in the wildfire business: tactics, technology, aircraft, local government prevention, etc. However, there is one prominent factor that remains consistent and will continue through time: wildfire is not going away.

Wildfire is an integral disturbance force in the Okanagan. Our forest and grasslands developed according to the intensity and frequency of wildfire occurrence (called a fire regime). We must accept and live with the understanding that wildfires will continue to occur.

However, all is not as lugubrious as the above sounds, as we do not need to live with such destructive losses and impacts from wildfire as those experienced most recently in Peachland.  Local governments and home owners can play a part is community wildfire risk reduction.

Over the past eight years, the provincial and local governments have been undertaking community wildfire management and interface fuel management treatments.

That is, they are working towards addressing this wildfire risk in their community plans and policies and developing the means to reduce both the risk and effects of interface wildfires. Through preventative fuel management treatments, communities are abating the interface fuel hazard. With decreased fuel loading around, and within, communities, the resultant effect should be less intense interface fires and less potential for structural losses.

The aforementioned work is expensive, requires pre-planning, professional prescriptions, community support, in-kind local government funds and political will, and moves according to quarterly government deadlines. As such, it is a time consuming and slow process.

In as much as local governments continue to pursue such community protection, and that this work is a worthwhile endeavour, the greatest impact on reducing wildfire effects will be realized by the collaborative efforts of individual home owners; particularly those living on the perimeter interface areas of Okanagan communities.

I’ve helped local Okanagan governments develop policies that direct developers towards building subdivisions and homes that take into account wildfire risk and decrease the potential impacts of wildfire. This is a meaningful endeavour by local governments to risk-reduce new developments. However, it has no impact on the vast development already constructed without regard for the existing wildfire risk.

Individual homeowners can undertake activities to abate the risk to their homes and properties. This is achieved through creating defensible space around a home; a zone within which fire behaviour is greatly reduced and professional fire fighters can anchor their suppression tactics and safely attempt to protect homes from an approaching wildfire. This defensible space is often obtained simply through removing yard debris, appropriate landscaping, and appropriate building materials. Defensible space, or lack thereof, is often why one home burns and the adjacent home does not (but not necessarily the sole reason).

The Partners in Protection FireSmart Manual is an excellent source for pursuing risk reduction and creating defensible space and every homeowner should read it if they are located with the wildland-urban interface.

We will never fireproof communities.  Wildfire potential will always exist and, under extenuating circumstances and extreme conditions, homes may be lost regardless of our preventative actions. However, through the ongoing concerted efforts of local governments and the collaborative action of individual homeowners, we can work towards greatly reducing such losses.  The responsibility for community wildfire reduction is a shared one.

John Davies, RPF, wildfire management specialist