The Fernie Fire Department is encouraging the public to participate in the FireSmart program. The program, which Fernie local Alan Westhaver helped create, aims to protect people’s personal property by educating them on the steps they can take at their home to help protect from a wildfire.
“It’s kind of interesting that there are very few large communities in western Canada that can say for sure that they are at risk. But we can, because it happened once in 1908,” said Westhaver.
Fernie experienced a wildfire over a century ago, when a smoldering fire to the west of Fernie escalated and moved into the city. According to Westhaver, within 19 minutes, only 37 structures were left standing in the city. Everything else had to be rebuilt.
Wildfire safety is at the top of people’s minds due to the current wildfires in northern Alberta and the damage it caused to Fort McMurray. Over 80,000 people had to evacuate and leave their homes after a wildfire ravaged the city last week. Westhaver says there is steps people can take to help prevent potential damage to their own properties.
“We want to get that message across that it is not a hopeless situation. We are not helpless in dealing with this. There are many little things that people can do that will make a big difference to the outcome,” he said. “Most of those are focused on people’s backyards and the immediate area around their homes.”
According to Westhaver, there are three main areas that people can focus on in regards to their property: structure, vegetation and infrastructure. Structure refers to the house and buildings themselves and what they are comprised of. Infrastructure, in this sense, means what tools and resources are available if a small fire does occur, such as a garden hose, rakes and shovels. Of the three, Westhaver says vegetation is the most important in regards to what vegetation is on the property, how flammable it is, and its proximity to the structures.
“Those three things are the main actions that residents can take,” Westhaver said. “The whole focus is to reduce the ignitability of a home. And its kind of dirt simple – if a home doesn’t ignite, it can’t burn down. And if homes don’t burn down, we really can’t have a disaster. We are always going to have forest fires out there; they play a very important role in nature, and they can’t all be extinguished. There are ways with coping with that and surviving in those events and that is what we are focused on.”
Neighbourhoods and communities can work towards a FireSmart designation, a title awarded to areas that have taken steps to educate themselves on fire safety and reduce hazards in their area. The Fernie Fire Department received a $10,000 grant from the Union of BC Municipalities (UCBM) to educate the public on FireSmart. Two staff members at the fire department are now facilitators in the FireSmart program, allowing them to share their knowledge with the local communities.
What the Fire Department and Westhaver are hoping is for people to step forward and express interest in the program, which they dub as “community champions”.
“At their request, we would go and do a hazard assessment of their neighbourhood and also prepare a report with three or four recommendations for simple things that they could be doing in that area to reduce the risk. In the meantime, that community champion goes and knocks on a few doors and gets a few of his neighbours interested and they form kind of a committee on the FireSmart board,” Westhaver said.
After the community or neighbourhood is organized, Westhaver said the Fire Department would give them a presentation of their assessment, with notes on what steps they could take to become FireSmart. Once they start taking steps and incorporating the assessment, they can apply to FireSmart Canada for the designation.
“It doesn’t mean that they are completely safe, but it does mean that they are working towards reducing that risk and we do know those things to be very effective. In doing so, the people become very aware of what they need to be doing, and they will start doing those things in their own back yards,” Westhaver said.
Fire Chief Ted Ruiter is in full support of the program and is hoping the community will help bring the program to fruition in Fernie.
“We can’t go there and say you have to cut this down or get rid of this vegetation. They have to understand the process and be willing to do it on their own,” he said.
Currently, Ruiter is working with the City of Fernie to re-write the Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP), which was originally drafted in 2005. The CWPP looks at the surrounding areas and determines what steps and procedures can be utilized to mitigate wildfire hazards and damage in the area.
For more information on the FireSmart program, contact Fire Chief Ruiter at (250)423-4226.