A new FireSmart training program designed to encourage citizen groups to fireproof their neighbourhoods has kicked off across Canada, with the first workshops taking place in the Northwest Territories.
Over 30 fire marshals, emergency service personnel, community planners and elders from across the NWT gathered at Aurora College’s Thebacha campus in Fort Smith last week for a two-day workshop on how to become involved in the Community Recognition Program and safeguard their homes from wildfires.
“Fort Smith is a fire town so it is a good place to start,” said Don Mortimer, a BC wildfire consultant who led the workshop with colleague Alan Westhaver. “We have more workshops planned for Saskatchewan and Ontario later this year…This program has been running in over 1,000 communities in the United States and it’s been successful.”
Workshop participants are certified to go back to their communities and give half-day informational sessions teaching others how to take preventive actions and prepare for wildfires before they occur. These measures include removing excess vegetation along roads, storing firewood well away from the house, using non-flammable roofing materials and planting deciduous trees and shrubs, not evergreens, near the home, as the latter burn more fiercely.
The workshop, presented by Partners in Protection, an Alberta-based coalition dedicated to providing information to reduce the risk of wildfire losses, also demonstrated how communities can obtain an official FireSmart recognition status by meeting certain criteria.
Interested communities can sponsor a local FireSmart board to maintain the FireSmart community plan, conduct yearly FireSmart events and invest a minimum of $2 annually per capita in local FireSmart community efforts.
“It’s important to note, too, that Fort Smith could have three or five of these programs running. It’s not just one program per community. It’s more of a neighbourhood thing than a town thing,” Mortimer said.
In Fort Smith, there is already an active FireSmart Committee.
“A few years ago we did a number of fuel modifications in the Axe Handle Hill area,” Wes Steed, Fort Smith’s FireSmart coordinator, said. “There’s also great co-operation here between the local fire department and ENR, which is a part of FireSmart, and the town budgets for FireSmart work – a key step – but there is more we can do.”
Becoming a FireSmart-recognized community has huge benefits, Mortimer said, such as creating a defensible space to prevent fires and wind-driven embers from fatally damaging homes and improving property value while reducing the risk of loss.
“It’s not a matter of if but when,” for many communities surrounded by boreal forests, such as Fort Smith, he said.
The program speaks to an educational gap in the national FireSmart program, established in the 1990s. While local governments and fire departments took advantage of the program, private landowners were not as easy to get on board, Mortimer said.
“We’ve been failing to get people to FireSmart their homes and yards. The government can only spend government money on government land,” Mortimer said. “Even though there’s good government programs doing fuel treatment around communities and efficient fire departments with updated information and equipment, the weak spot has been on private land. So this is a new way to get the message down to individual homeowners and neighbourhoods.”
The overall objective is to have “the wildfire pass through and (be) managed without the disaster,” he added. “The disaster part is almost always preventable.”