Fernie is leading the charge in wildfire loss prevention.
Nine neighbourhoods have signed up for the FireSmart Canada Community Recognition Program, which acknowledges residents’ efforts to reduce their vulnerability to wildfires.
The most proactive residents are known as community champions and help to organize their neighbours.
FireSmart advisor to Fernie Fire Rescue, Alan Westhaver, recruited another two community champions at a recent open house held at the fire department to mark Emergency Preparedness Week.
He hopes to enlist many more at the next FireSmart Community Champion Workshop, which will be held at the Fernie Fire Hall on Thursday, May 31 from 7 p.m.
“We’d like to make Fernie a real model for right across the country,” he said.
“With nine neighbourhoods here, we’re breaking new ground.
“It’s a pretty new program but we’re very excited at the level of participation from the residents, the degree of support from the City of Fernie.
“It’s just going by word of mouth right now and we can barely keep up.”
Before joining FireSmart, Westhaver spent 35 years working with National Parks, mostly in fire management.
He believes the program will make a “huge difference” and could prevent another disaster on the scale of the Great Fire of 1908 when the town of Fernie was razed to the ground.
“With climate change, more people in the Valley, more developments being placed out in the woods, we’re at greater risk than ever before so we have to get out in front of this problem and FireSmart is the way to do that.”
Once a resident registers their interest with FireSmart, a local representative will visit their neighbourhood to conduct a formal wildfire hazard assessment.
They will then prepare a report with results and recommendations describing actions that residents could take to reduce wildlife risks.
“What we’re finding is it’s a lot of little things that make the difference between your home igniting and being lost or it not igniting,” said Westhaver.
“Very much it’s a problem with the way that we manage our vegetation around the homes and there’s lots of room for having nice gardens and trees and shrubs, it’s more about the kinds we plant, the way that we arrange them and in some cases, if they’re very combustible and they’re right beside the home, we might need to remove them, but in most cases, it just means pruning or trimming them, or rearranging things.
“And how we manage all those combustible things, from lawn clippings to recycling to deck chairs to ATVs, anything that can burn in your yard is a pathway for fire to get to a home, so once people become aware of that, they can break those pathways up and that’s what we’re really looking for.”
Westhaver said the biggest misconception about fire was how homes catch alight.
“What we see on the news all the time is the cameras are focused on the big flames and incredible heat but it’s not the flames… it’s the billions and billions of tiny embers that are lifted up from the fire and are raining down like a blizzard, literally like a snowstorm of burning embers are landing around us, sometimes hundreds and hundreds per square metre,” he said.
“Each one of those has the ability to ignite a fire if they land on something that’s easily combustible.”
As well as conducting a hazard assessment, FireSmart provides residents with an organizational structure to help them establish a committee within their neighbourhood. Once they have a committee and plan in place, residents can apply to FireSmart Canada for national recognition that they are a FireSmart neighbourhood.
Parkland Terrace is one neighbourhood on its way to becoming FireSmart.
Fred Voysey has lived on the street since 1990 and decided to join the community recognition program after meeting Westhaver two years ago and attending a community champion workshop.
“From that meeting, I saw the value in being proactive and trying to give ourselves a chance against these wildfire situations,” he said.
Earlier this month, the Parkland Terrace FireSmart Board organized a work bee to remove excessive forest fuels from a section of Sparling East Park.
About 35 people helped to clear years of dead brush and fallen branches up to the road, and spent the afternoon discussing actions they could take in their own backyards to reduce their vulnerability.
“What we decided to do is reduce fuel in the wildland to decrease the intensity of any wildfire coming through,” said Voysey.
“We had people here and it was the first time I’d met them… they quite enjoyed the day and felt it was a very worthwhile program.”
The other eight neighbourhoods in Fernie are planning one-day FireSmart events over summer that will also qualify them for national recognition. Anyone interested in becoming a community champion can contact Bruce Nelson at 250-423-4226.