Canada’s Wildfires Provide Opportunity to Rethink How Our Communities Are Built

By Jim Mandeville

Growing wildfires have prompted evacuation orders for a mountain resort village in British Columbia’s Okanagan. The Keremeos Creek blaze has burned an area of over four-square kilometres as of the start of August. Thirteen months after the devastating 2021 fire that eviscerated the town of Lytton, that community also faced the Nohomin Creek wildfire in July.

The latest activity is another in a series of stark reminders that continue to be commonplace each summer. These fires have devastated communities across Canada, the United States, Australia, and Europe, where heatwaves and fires are scorching paths of damage.

Looking back for perspective, the 2021 fires that raged though B.C., created one of the worst wildfire seasons in the province’s history (after 2017 and 2018). More than 1,600 fires burned up almost 8,700 square kilometres of land. This was all part of a bigger weather phenomenon, the 2021 Western North America extreme heat wave (aka heat dome) – a 1000-year weather event.

To help understand and learn from the catastrophic events that occurred in the province last year, First Onsite conducted a survey of 1500 Canadians which found that 85 per cent of B.C. residents were worried about wildfires (leading the country by a huge margin). Alberta was next at 75 per cent, followed by Manitoba and Saskatchewan (64%), Quebec (59%) and Ontario (52%).

Natural disasters can often engulf homes, immobilize businesses, and destabilize communities. There is a substantial risk of interruption to lives and businesses. The number one piece of preparedness advice is awareness – listen to authorities, follow evacuation alerts, and be ready to go at the drop of a hat, equipped with a full tank of gas and a packed bag. Moving quickly can protect lives.

Much of Canada’s wildfires happen in cycles. Canada’s Boreal forests have burned naturally since at least the last ice age. The fires greatly affect the structure, growth, and regeneration of forests. In fact, the ecosystem depends upon such recurring natural disturbance. Fire-dependent species like lodgepole and jack pine have serotinous, resin sealed cones that are allowed to melt open during fires, allowing seeds to scatter so that a new pine forest begins. Fire also produces suitable conditions for the seeds of these pines to germinate. As communities continue to expand amid these forests, certain risks will continue.

Discussions and action have taken place to protect, prepare and build communities to be more resilient to fires. Several strategies are being deployed. Modern building materials and techniques are much more resilient to fire damage while also being sustainable. Many of these choices, such as cementitious siding in place of wood, metal roofing in place of shingles, and fire smart landscaping can be the difference between minor smoke damage and a building burning to the ground.

It’s important for residents and business owners to also be aware of the tangible ways they can protect their lives, properties, and assets from wildfire. This includes clearing away gutter debris; removing nearby coniferous trees; pruning trees and keeping lawns mowed; and creating an evacuation plan. Additionally, it’s critical to ensure that businesses and homes have adequate insurance coverage.

Wildfire smoke can also be very dangerous, extensive, and widespread. Frequently we see particulate levels in the air in major cities like Vancouver that are 40 times the normal safe limit because of wildfire smoke, even though the fire can be as far as 1,000 kilometres away. Stunningly, smoke from the 2017 and 2018 BC wildfires reached the stratosphere over central Europe.

Providing clean air for employees, customers, tenants, and residents is a priority. Employers can take steps to protect workers, including allowing for flexible work schedules on low air quality days and installing additional air scrubbing equipment.

While planners and developers take into consideration how planned/lived environments can coexist with natural areas, communities can also take extra steps to protect themselves, reduce business interruption and safeguard lives.

Catastrophes provide an opportunity to rethink how our communities are built – and how they can be made more resilient and sustainable.

About the author

Jim Mandeville is SVP, Large Loss for First Onsite Property Restoration. He has been at every major wildfire and catastrophic event in Canada in the past 12 years including last year’s BC fires and floods.

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