March was a record-breaking month in B.C. for warm temperatures and dry conditions. That, combined with recent experience—2017 broke all the provincial wildfire records, only to be surpassed by August 29 last year—is raising fear about the upcoming wildfire season.
So far, 19 wildfires have been reported since the fiscal 2019 started April 1.
“It’s certainly a topic that’s on people’s minds and I know there’s a lot of concern out there,” said Smithers Mayor Taylor Bachrach.
Bachrach is not so much concerned about Smithers itself, but noted the risk to surrounding areas.
“We’re really well-protected here in town by our fire department and I’m really confident in their skills, but certainly last year was an eye-opener for a lot of people and I know there’s a lot more we can do to keep our community safe,” he said.
One of those things is a mobile sprinkler system Smithers Fire has purchased.
“I think there’s some good progress being made on the preparedness front,” Bachrach said. “We’re hopeful that will provide an added level of protection for rural residents within our fire boundary, as well as being an asset that we can deploy to other communities that are in need.”
Mark Fisher, the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako (RDBN) representative for Electoral Area A (Smithers Rural) said the regional district is approaching the situation on three levels.
“One is the personal level,” he said. “The Regional District is really promoting the Firesmart on your property idea.
“Experiences from previous summers show that people that have done some firesmarting around their property have had a lot better success having a house left at the end of the season.”
Firesmart is a national program that provides property assessment and risk reduction tools.
Its literature suggests a number of suggestions homeowners can use to mitigate risk including: removing combustible debris from roofs and gutters; mowing grass and weeds within 10 metres of buildings to 10 cm less; maintaining a 1.5 metre noncombustible zone around homes; moving combustible items such as toys, patio furniture, cushions, decorative items, firewood, and potted plants 10 metres away from buildings; moving all combustible items into buildings; keeping propane tanks 10 metres away from structures; removing weeds and other debris from area around large, stationary propane tanks; and clearing vegetation and debris from around both sides of combustible fence lines.
“On a regional level, there has been some grants from the Province, but we’re trying to figure out how that can fit into a long-term strategy,” Fisher said. “We’re hesitant to just kind of jump on board with any kind of granting that comes the regional district’s way simply because it’s a downloading [of responsibility]. We’d like to work with the province to figure out how that programming and that money can become long-term.”
Finally, RDBN is involved in discussions at the federal and provincial levels looking at policy around issues such as forestry practices that could help mitigate fire risk, he said.
Fisher is also concerned about policies and procedures around fire events that have occurred, such as re-entry of residents.
“It’s up to a local government to kind of figure that out as events come their way and it’s just so inefficient, for one, everybody having to re-invent the wheel, so let’s look at it long-term as a strategy.”
In terms of the upcoming wildfire season, Fisher expressed concern but added some cautious optimism citing modelling by the B.C. Wildfire Service indicating geography and vegetation in the Bulkley Valley makes it a lower risk area.
“I’m pretty concerned, certainly the weather is leaning that way,” he said. “We’re definitely due for some events, however, just the vegetation and stuff gives a little more hope that we won’t have as devastating as some areas.”
Even if fires do not occur locally, the area may have to deal with issues arising from emergencies elsewhere.
Last year, Bulkley Valley Emergency Support Services (BVESS) ran an evacuee reception centre from Aug. 7 to Dec. 12 receiving more than 1300 evacuees from Telegraph Creek, Fort St. James and Smithers Landing and Fort Babine Nation.
“Just like any season, we’re preparing for the upcoming fire season, but this year with a little more preparedness in mind just because of the dryness and the fires that we had last year,” said Matt Herzog, BVESS director.
Herzog said his organization is more ready than ever before with more training, better equipment and a new mobile reception centre.
He is currently finalizing the purchase of a travel trailer that will be renovated
“We’ll be able to do mobile registration of evacuees for Level 2 and Level 3 events, which could be everything from an apartment fire, where we have lots of people that have been displaced, all the way up to deploying volunteers so they’re into other communities to assist with their evacuations or with their reception centres,” he said.
The trailer was purchased primarily to serve Telkwa, but, he said, they will now be able to go where they’re needed.
BVESS has also purchased a radio system.
“The big thing is safety; when we have a lot of volunteers working in a large facility such as the Christian Reform Church, it’s just a lot easier to be able to stay in touch with all those people while they’re working,” Herzog explained.
Finally, they have beefed up their volunteer base, but, he said, they can always use more.
“Volunteers are the base of what we do, so we really can’t function without them, so with larger and larger events we require more volunteers,” he said. “If anybody out there is interested in helping their community in times of need or times of disaster, just give us a contact and we’d be more than happy to get them signed up and registered.”