Just six weeks ago, people were shocked and startled to see the devastation in Fort McMurray. Over 80,000 people were evacuated from the area and over 2,400 structures were lost – structures that make up a community, including homes, schools and businesses.
People across the country watched in awe at the resilience of the people of Fort McMurray and the dedication of the firefighters and first responders. It seems like the wildfire that ripped through the Northern Alberta oil community pulled at the heart strings of communities from coast to coast. The main reason for that is because it could have been any community. It could have been our community.
In 1908, it was our community. While all we have now are relics and stories of the fire that destroyed Fernie over a century ago, it wasn’t that much different than a modern day forest fire. It started because of a small bush fire to the west of town and small embers were carried with wind, causing the town to burn down in just 19 minutes.
When it comes to natural disasters, such as wildfires and floods, what makes them so terrifying is that they are relatively uncontrollable. After they start, it takes the efforts of hundreds, along with thousands, sometimes millions of dollars, to battle. However, they are only uncontrollable when they begin. There are precautions that we, as participants in the community, can take before the disasters start.
For example, when it comes to fire safety, residents of Fernie have access to resources. Fire Chief Ted Ruiter and Alan Westhaver have reached out to the community and are offering to work with the public. They are advocates for the FireSmart program, which is modeled after the FireWise Community Programs in the United States. The FireSmart program teaches homeowners what they can do to their properties to make them less susceptible to fires. The program suggests looking at three areas of the home – the structure and what the home is made out of, how combustible are surrounding objects and the type of vegetation on the property. According to Westhaver, insurance companies in the US have deemed the FireWise program as a huge success. It is proven that neighbourhoods and communities that participate in this program are more likely to survive and have less damage in the case of a wildfire.
That’s the good part. Everyone in Fernie can participate in the program and have the resources available to learn about fire protection. Chief Ruiter and Westhaver’s goal would be to see the entire town designated as FireSmart. They will work through the steps with you and let you know what you can do, at your home and in your neighbourhood. Programs like this give some of the control back to the communities.