The Fernie Fire Department is just one of several urging residents to use FireSmart practices and be aware of fire risks this spring and summer. Soranne Floarea/The Free Press

Elk Valley fire services prepare for upcoming wildfire season

As temperatures rise, fire departments urge residents to be increasingly fire safe

With spring weather bringing warmer and drier conditions in the Elk Valley, the wildfire threat is on the rise.

According to Dean Spry, director of fire services for the District of Sparwood, wildfires are a threat within British Columbia due to densely forested land. While the Elk Valley does not receive extreme hot temperatures like other areas, high wind conditions persist, heightening wildfire risk. Spry confirms that while lightning strikes cause roughly 50 per cent of fires, human caused fires are of equal concern.

Fernie fire chief Ted Ruiter also mentioned that climate change has resulted in longer fire seasons, increased lightning strikes, and deteriorating forest health conditions, each of which add to the risk of an active wildfire season.

Ruiter also stated that current reports point to this upcoming year being one of the hottest on record, potentially translating into a significant increase in wildfire activity. The prediction was made by meteorologists and fire behaviour specialists who observed environmental factors foreseeing warmer than usual patterns expected for British Columbia. While the impact of the pandemic is not taken into account in the prediction, residents across both Canada and British Columbia are urged to be fire safe throughout the summer.

According to Ruiter, the best thing families can do to prepare for wildfire season is to educate themselves on FireSmart principles, while keeping informed about local rules and regulations including burning bans and burning restrictions. He also recommends having a 72 hour emergency preparedness kit ready in the event an evacuation is necessary. Ruiter also reminds residents to clean roof gutters, clear debris from yards, and to mow grass in an effort to prevent further risk.

On that note, as of May 1, 2020, Fernie Fire Rescue temporarily rescinded the backyard campfire ban. Residents are still required to possess a valid fire pit permit in order to have an authorized backyard fire, however no new permits will be issued at this time. The Fernie Fire Department will actively monitor the situation to ensure social distancing regulations continue to be maintained while ensuring calls impacting resources remain low. Otherwise, the fire ban will be reinstated.

At the moment, British Columbia’s ban on category two and category three open fires continues to be in place. According to Spry, to best prepare, locals are urged to review and implement recommendations from British Columbia’s FireSmart program, while remembering to prepare properties according to FireSmart guidelines, and always adhering to local jurisdictional regulations.

“People need to know and follow the rules regarding their approved use of the fire permit, and understand their responsibilities associated with the permit. For example, not burning when it is windy, having suppression capabilities readily available, never leaving a fire unsupervised by a responsible person, and always completely extinguishing the fire,” said Spry.

In order to best prepare for the season ahead, local fire rescue teams are going over risk management techniques, land use regulations, preparing equipment, and reviewing tactical programs. The District of Sparwood’s fire services are also currently working on a FireSmart educational program that should be rolled out by this upcoming fall.

In terms of COVID-19 related changes, the pandemic will likely require fire fighters to social distance while on scene. According to Ruiter, this will take on the form of using multiple vehicles, and donning appropriate personal protective equipment. Though the pandemic complicates this year’s preparations for the wildfire season, Fernie Fire Rescue continues to look for ways to mitigate the risk of wildfires to the Elk Valley in a way that manages resources in a sustainable manner. Local fire rescue teams have also been working closely with BC Wildfire for expertise and assistance, while collaborating with the Fire Chiefs Association of BC and the province to provide greater insight as to what lays ahead.

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