Naive in the face of pending calamity

Naive in the face of pending calamity

The main protection against tsunamis for towns along the eastern Japanese coast exposed to the Pacific Ocean was a series of three-metre-high levees.

The tsunami that killed so many people one year ago reached heights of 30 metres. Evacuation centres, where people were trained to go in routine exercises, were close to the ocean. Many of the evacuation points people dutifully ran to were flooded and destroyed, in some cases with no survivors. That has to be a lesson.

Never underestimate the forces of nature!

And here we are, surrounded by boreal forest – predominantly coniferous, which needs to be burned routinely by wildfire in a natural cycle. Most of it is old-growth around communities because the forest has been protected to the point that it is dying – crying out to be burned. Add to that climate change, which may result in a dryer climate, exacerbating the already volatile situation. All that is apparent. Why is more not being done?

Each year, just ahead of spring, we at the Northern Journal issue a warning about the disaster-in-waiting for our communities. We wave a red flag about how preparedness to protect them against wildfires is inadequate. Each year we wonder at the lack of foresight of our community and government leaders for not taking action on this obvious, very serious and, in many cases, preventable threat.

Did you hear the Alberta government opened its fire season officially on March 1 this year – the earliest ever? They obviously learned a lesson from the devastating Slave Lake fire last May when two wind-driven wildfires turned on the community and destroyed a large portion of it. Extremely dry conditions and wildfires have already been experienced in southern Alberta around Taber and Lethbridge. But is Alberta still treating wildfires with the usual ad hoc approach of dealing with the situation when it happens rather than being prepared in advance?

Why have we not all heard more about the lessons from the Slave Lake fire? Or put in a broader perspective, why were lessons from the horrendous fires that destroyed Kelowna neighbourhoods in 2003 not enacted to attempt preventing the kind of thing that happened in Slave Lake?

Complacency may stem from the fact that a forest fire threatening the tiny, isolated communities typical in the boreal forest is rare – the land is so vast, after all. That thinking is not very popular when disaster does strike, however, and it predictably will, somewhere, at some time. We are really good at fighting fires – amazing in our capabilities, in fact – but we don’t show up when it comes to preventing them. Better to have foresight, make the effort and be prepared in advance.

The NWT lucked out last summer with few communities seriously threatened. Only Deline had fires close enough that people needed to be evacuated. The fire was managed and things turned out for the best. But then there were no “wind events” pushing the blaze into the community as happened in Slave Lake. It could have been much different, and terrible, there, too. One would think this would be taken as an opportunity for discussion and education – that government officials would facilitate meetings with the NWT Association of Communities and publicize what was done and not done – to educate the public. No such communication, no such thinking.

Fort Smith was on high alert early last season when dreaded dry lightning in drought conditions sparked a fire 30 km from town. Town leaders got carried away with messaging, making the situation out to be much more dire than it was, and some people actually began showing up at evacuation centres. Yet that experience has not been reviewed and discussed.

If there were public meetings and an effort to learn and improve from the experience, it would have been found that Fort Smith’s evacuation planning was seriously flawed. No good method was available to communicate with the community, there was no organized transportation means to get people out of town and there was no advance planning for a safe-haven to relocate community residents to. In the case of a real fire threat, the community would have faced very serious issues. When such problems are the obvious reality, which is typically the case in almost every Northern community, the egos of the leaders need to be set aside and such things need to be discussed openly and candidly, for the greater good.

All the above simply involves a bit of foresight, common sense and good leadership. A key component to it is good communication.

Here are some Northern Journal suggestions on what could be done, long term, for community wildfire preparedness:

1. The public should be fully aware of the threats, including a serious education effort to inform and engage them –  what needs to be done and what role they will play;

2. Resources and training have to be in play long before the fire season starts. That includes the formation of competent emergency measures organizations in every community. These should be separate citizen-driven organizations, not afterthoughts buried in local government bureaucracies;

3. Long-term creative community planning should include, by design, separation of neighbourhoods from the forest –  ball diamonds, golf courses, driving ranges, soccer pitches, playgrounds and race tracks on community perimeters – and these should connect to wider (cleared and maintained) open-area greenspaces.

4. Firewood gathering and timber harvesting should be encouraged in a planned way around communities, particularly where old-growth forest interfaces with neighbourhoods;

5. Initiatives such as pellet manufacturing for pellet stoves and furnaces that may be planned as a growth industry should include harvesting old-growth forests around communities;

6. Building codes should require fireproof roofing and siding materials.

Imagine, a community potato patch alongside a soccer pitch in an area on the edge of town cleared by local wood-harvesters – as a long term, communal strategy to prevent forest fires.

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