Slave Lake fire puts boreal communities on alert

Slave Lake fire puts boreal communities on alert
Wildfires destroyed much of the town of Slave Lake. The entire community has been evacuated.

As shocking images of the wildfire destruction of Slave Lake, Alberta reach the North, the community of Fort Smith is reeling from the sharp reminder of the inherent dangers that come with living in the middle of the boreal forest. For those who work to protect the community from wildfires, the disaster south of Fort

As shocking images of the wildfire destruction of Slave Lake, Alberta reach the North, the community of Fort Smith is reeling from the sharp reminder of the inherent dangers that come with living in the middle of the boreal forest.

For those who work to protect the community from wildfires, the disaster south of Fort Smith reinforces the need for everyone to be aware of the risk of fire.

Westly Steed is the territorial FireSmart coordinator, former chair of the Fort Smith FireSmart Committee and member of the Fort Smith volunteer fire department. He has a lot of knowledge of wildfires, but the speed of the disaster and the extent of Slave Lake’s destruction still surprised him.

Steed told The Journal that everyone in NWT boreal communities should take the Slave Lake fire as a wakeup call to become more vigilant when it comes to protecting personal property.

“Research has shown that taking care of your own backyard, by clearing out the priority zones one and two (up to 20 meters from the house), your house has a better chance of surviving a fire,” Steed said.

He noted that it is usually not the fire wall itself causing destruction of homes and communities, but rather the fire brands – burning embers and branches – that get thrown ahead of the fire, sometimes as far as a kilometer from the actual fire wall.

The burning brands often scatter through a community, landing on flammable areas such as cluttered eave troughs, dry grasses or debris piles and start small fires that quickly spread.

Clearing debris from the two priority zones around yourhome can make a big difference in saving property from fire.

Clearing debris from the two priority zones around yourhome can make a big difference in saving property from fire.

That is why Steed said every homeowner has to take responsibility for the immediate area around their home, by clearing dead brush and leaves, emptying eaves troughs and moving wood piles ten meters from the house.

Other things, such as having fire-proof shingling on rooftops and installing fire-resistant skirting along wooden decks and the bottom of trailers, can go a long way towards protecting a house.
As for the community of Fort Smith, the past two winters of community projects have helped thin some problem areas.

Last year’s brush cutting cleaned up the forest on Axehandle Hill and along the eastern border of town, while this year saw thinning of the forest along three bump road as well as in Bell Rock.
The work in the forest at the corner of Wilderness and Calder came in handy last week, as the Fort Smith volunteer fire department was called to a small brush fire along walking paths through that area.

Steed said the town was fortunate that the fire started early in the day. He said the FireSmart work clearing out the brush in that area helped keep the fire small and made it easier for people walking by to spot the flames and report it to the fire department, which arrived before the fire had time to spread.

The cause of the fire is unknown.

Fort Smith has a complete ban on all fires in the municipality. Anyone spotting flames is asked to call the Fort Smith RCMP at 872-1111 or 877-NWT-FIRE (877-698-3473). For information on current  fire conditions and FireSmart, go to www.nwtfire.com.

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