Smithers relatively shielded from wildfire danger

Tucked between the Bulkley River and the steep slopes of Hudson Bay Mountain, Smithers is relatively shielded from wildfires.

Tucked between the Bulkley River and the  steep slopes of Hudson Bay Mountain, Smithers is relatively shielded from wildfires.

But the town and surrounding rural area are not completely out of the woods, and homeowners should take care to keep their yards clear of anything that could fuel a wildfire.

That is the overall sense of a new study looking into how wildfires might spread into Smithers.

“We’ve been fortunate in our topography and our forest ecology,” said Peter Tweedie, a professional forester who was commissioned to do the report.

The Bulkley is an obvious firebreak, and the steep slope climbing west of town helps because fire tends to race uphill as heat rises.

A railway, several roads and an 80-metre clearing for a power line would also slow any wildfire trying to spread down the mountain.

Smithers also gets a break from the local ecology, said Tweedie.

“Really, when it comes to classic, volatile forest types, Smithers is pretty lucky,” he said.

As the leaves on local aspen trees turn yellow and orange, Tweedie said you can clearly see just how much of the forest around town is deciduous or a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees.

Deciduous, leaf-bearing trees can hold a lot more moisture than evergreens.

They are not a fire break, Tweedie said, but they will dampen a wildfire.

Surrounded by dry, hot-burning pine, Kelowna and Penticton were not so lucky in the intense firestorms of 2003.

A record 2,500 wildfires started in B.C. that summer and forced 45,000 to evacuate their homes. Three pilots died fighting the flames and at least 334 homes were destroyed.

Many of those homes stood close together in neighbourhoods that had been built right into pine forests. It was after those fires that a province-wide study recommended every municipality in B.C. come up with its own wildfire plan.

Except for an area of five-acre lots north of Lake Kathlyn, most homes in the Smithers area do not butt up against pine the way they did in the Kelowna or more recent Slave Lake fires.

The situation is much different in Telkwa, where a similar report found that extra dry, beetle-killed forest nearby posed a more serious threat.

Beetle-killed wood is not a major focus of the Smithers report, said Tweedie, “but it’s on everyone’s mind.”

When it comes to fire threats, what the Smithers report  really noticed was the springtime risk of grass and brush fires.

Tweedie surveyed the last 10 years of call-outs by the Smithers fire department and found that, in town, they respond to between four and 12 grass or brush fires every year. All are human ignited.

Outside town, just over half the fires the Smithers crew responds to are human ignited.

Of those human-ignited fires, the report found, 70 per cent started in April, May and June.

Fire crews told Tweedie that they gear up for extra fires in early spring. Before the trees sprout leaves, there is a period of windy, warm weather that tends to dry out the woods and grasses.

Although the Town of Smithers has bylaws that allow officials to fine those homeowners who have a build-up of fuel material in their yards, Tweedie said the laws that apply to the rural district around town have no preventative measures—they can only reclaim costs.

In or out of town, Tweedie advises homeowners to check out FireSmart, a short guide put out by the province that explains how to protect your home from wildfires.