Poor wildfire planning puts communities in peril

Poor wildfire planning puts communities in peril
Photo: Kelly Pennycook, ENR.

Winter is almost over, and unless the North experiences a series of storms that drop an abundance of snow in the next month, the forests in spring will be tinder-dry. Since the coming summer promises to be as drought-stricken as last year, wildfires will be a major threat once again.

Community leaders should be getting ready for such possibilities. Woodlots for cutting firewood should have been designated in any forested areas adjacent to neighbourhoods. Make-work projects pursuing fire-smart programs should be activated in the fall and spring months.

Neighbourhoods that interface with the forest must have a buffer so that firefighters have something to work with in the event of a wildfire. Is your community doing those things?

What about facilitating an emergency measures committee whose job it is to plan for the threat of wildfire? That committee, led by an experienced and connected leader – a former fire chief perhaps – would consider emergency situations that might arise, plan for how to best deal with them and communicate those plans to residents. Does your community have that going on? If not, the leadership is negligent.

Does your community have an evacuation plan? Every Northern community needs one. Where would residents go to be safe if a wildfire, pushed by wind, is a threatening force at the edge of town? Most communities in the North have only two effective exits – two ways to get out of town. What if both were compromised because of more than one fire?

If a community has to evacuate, how would that be executed? Hundreds of cars and trucks, many of them with stressed out – even panicked – drivers heading out of the community on the only safe road is a recipe for problems. How would that be handled? If a wildfire invades a community and adverse conditions remain for days, how would the evacuees manage? Is there an available, portable supply of water that would last for several days for hundreds of people? What kind of shelters (in a mosquito and blackfly-infested summer) would be available in such an emergency? How would mothers with babies cope, or families with small children?

In most places, none of that has been thought through. Few Northern communities, if any, are adequately prepared.

Last summer in the NWT, entire communities, transportation routes, transmission lines and hydro stations were threatened for weeks on end, with massive fire complexes causing power outages and making air quality so poor residents were often cooped up for days. A tourism lodge and a family homestead were claimed in the infernos that left fire crews powerless in the face of nature’s fury. In total, 3.5 million hectares of forest burned. The cost of attempting to control the fires was over $55 million.

The most compelling thing to note is that almost every community in the southern half of the NWT was threatened by wildfire. It is only by the grace of good fortune that no communities burned and no lives were lost. That same situation is very likely going to happen again.

Drought is impacting the northern part of Saskatchewan, Alberta and most of the NWT. Whatever is left of the boreal forest that has not burned recently is vulnerable. Every community is a potential victim. This needs to be acknowledged, understood and dealt with. Good leadership is required in every community; planning and preparations are essential.

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