Property owners in Whistler, B.C., since last year have been able to request house calls from a mobile chipping service that picks up wood waste and takes it to be composted nearby.
The goal is to remove brush and debris that can become volatile fuel for wildfires, particularly in a community that is surrounded by, and in many cases built into, dense forest.
It’s one of hundreds of programs under way around B.C. in response to wildfire threats, which have been underscored by particularly destructive fire seasons in 2017 and again this year.
In Whistler, the increased fire threat has made the yard-waste program an easy sell.
“This summer, the tide has turned. People have got the message and we are being overwhelmed with phone calls,” said Heather Beresford, manager of environmental stewardship with the Resort Municipality of Whistler. “It’s a good problem to have.”
Cities are clearing brush, revamping zoning practices and offering free seminars to homeowners in an effort to reduce wildfire risk, even as development pushes farther into forested areas. They are also creating community wildfire protection plans – a key recommendation from a 2003 review of that year’s devastating fire season – although many have not been fully implemented.
In a 2017 report, the B.C. Auditor-General said about half of communities that have wildfire protection plans had not done any work on the ground and that only 10 per cent of high risk forests around communities had been treated. Forests are treated by thinning and removing dry wood to reduce the fuel load or, in some cases, with prescribed burns. High-risk forests are those that have a lot of dry, dead wood. As of June 27, there were 337 Community Wildfire Protection Plans completed by local governments and First Nations with another 54 in progress.
This summer’s wildfire season has renewed calls for increased investment and added urgency to programs already under way. Whistler, for example, has dipped into its municipal budget to supplement provincial funds for wildfire protection. In 2018, it expects to spend about $1.4-million on fire prevention work, with nearly half of that – $680,000 – coming from the municipal budget. But the scope of areas to be treated – with predictions of drier, hotter summers – makes for a complex, long-term challenge.
Penticton has a community wildfire protection plan and local government is trying to encourage FireSmart practices in established neighbourhoods, deputy fire chief Chris Forster said. FireSmart principles include, for example, spacing and pruning trees so that fires will not spread as quickly.
That typically involves lining up a community champion who will organize clean-up days, Mr. Forster said. To date, about four or five neighbourhoods have taken part; the city would like to get 20 or 30 on board.
For new subdivisions, Penticton encourages non-combustible building materials and landscaping; cedar hedges, for instance, are discouraged for their tendency to act as wicks if a wildfire gets close enough to homes.
“Where you see those news clips where a whole subdivision goes up in flames and there are two or three random houses and you think those were lucky … those people more than likely had FireSmart practices in place," Mr. Forster said.
As in Penticton, city officials in Kelowna encourage private property owners in high-risk areas – those closest to the forest – to thin or remove potentially dangerous trees or brush.
Wildfire awareness has changed practices. At least one Kelowna subdivision, Gallagher’s Canyon, has a policy that homes have cedar shake roofs; the city recommends owners ignore that policy and use other, safer materials, city planner Ryan Smith said. Road design has also been affected; cul-de-sacs with only one way in or out are discouraged.
In June, Kelowna council endorsed an updated community wildfire protection plan that included 47 recommendations, including a prescribed burn pilot project.
The District of North Vancouver uses the zoning process to mitigate wildfire hazards. The municipality has five development permit areas that include zones at risk from wildfire, landslides or flooding. The areas were brought in following a 2005 landslide that killed a woman in her home. A 2008 coroner’s report found the slide was preventable.
New construction in those development permit areas requires permits and inspections to, for example, ensure vegetation follows FireSmart principles.
Whistler, too, is bringing in development permit areas as part of its updated Official Community Plan, expected to be approved later this year.
B.C.'s Strategic Wildfire Prevention Initiative, launched in 2004 and administered through the Union of B.C. Municipalities, is being shifted to a new provincially run community-resilience program, which the government backed with $50-million over three years in this year’s budget.
That change is among the responses to a government report earlier this year into the 2017 flood and wildfire season. The province says it is acting on 30 of the 108 recommendations in that report and expects to have an action plan to complete all of the recommendations ready by the end of October.