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Alberta Too little being done to protect communities from wildfires, experts say

Gutted homes and smoky streets in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Fort McMurray.

Gutted homes and smoky streets in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Fort McMurray.

Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

'Why didn't we all learn?'

Yet another destructive wildfire raises questions about our failure to learn from Kelowna and Slave Lake – to take steps to guard against their fury. Mark Hume reports

As he stood on 12th Avenue with 35 homes and dozens of vehicles in flames around him, Lesser Slave Lake Regional Fire Chief Jamie Coutts was assaulted by a flood of thoughts.

One was that his team wasn't trained to fight the kind of mega-fire that had roared out of the northeast Alberta forest in May, 2011, igniting parts of Slave Lake with a blizzard of embers that rained from the sky.

Another was "this happened in Kelowna in 2003, why didn't we all learn from that?"

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After a massive blaze swept through Fort McMurray more than two weeks ago, forcing the evacuation of over 80,000 people, that question is being asked again by fire experts who think too little is being done to prevent wildfires from spreading into communities.

Despite wildfires that have caused billions of dollars of damage in recent years, only a relative handful of Canadian communities have fully embraced programs, such as FireSmart Canada, designed to keep suburbs safe from forest fires.

Fort McMurray was an early adopter of the defensive approach, launching a planning project in 1997 that aimed to turn the city into a "FireSmart community." The regional municipality spent $465,000 in provincial grants over the years on preventive measures, but it might not have done enough. The town's wildfire-prevention officer couldn't be reached for comment; a provincial government spokesman, Renato Gandia, described the community as "a great partner of FireSmart."

A row of houses lay burnt to the ground, on the outskirts of Slave Lake, Alta., on May 20, 2011.

A row of houses lay burnt to the ground, on the outskirts of Slave Lake, Alta., on May 20, 2011.

Todd Korol/Reuters

Mr. Coutts said it is too soon to say what lessons can be learned from the Fort McMurray disaster, but one thing is clear – another community has been devastated by a wildfire, the scope of which might have been preventable.

"I feel that, as human beings, we are slow on the uptake here."

His comment wasn't meant as criticism of Fort McMurray, but rather of society in general for failing – despite several clear warnings – to take adequate steps to adapt to the increasing threat of wildfires.

Because of climate change, drought and more than a century of fire suppression which has built up fuel loads in the forests, mega-fires, which grow and move with shocking speed, are becoming more common.

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"We have to take living in the boreal forest seriously," Mr. Coutts said. "That's not just [a lesson for] Fort McMurray, that's for every single person that lives in the boreal forest. That would be my top thing."

After the devastating Slave Lake fire five years ago, which destroyed nearly 400 homes, the community became a model for the FireSmart program.

Slave Lake now has fire-hardened suburbs where houses are built to higher flame-resistant standards; they are ringed by protection zones where fire fuel has been reduced, and the last line of defence now includes an urban firefighting team that has "cross-trained" with forest crews.

The blueprint Slave Lake used was provided by FireSmart Canada, a non-profit national program that aims to teach communities how to best protect themselves against wildfires.

For years the FireSmart manual had largely been ignored in Slave Lake, but the catastrophic fire changed attitudes.

"FireSmart used to be a black book with a fire [photo] on the front of it sitting on the shelf covered in dust. Now I could recite that book page for page if I wanted to and so could a lot of other folks in town," Mr. Coutts said.

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Slave Lake got $20-million in provincial funding for the project, but he said few communities have the money needed to do the extensive work his town did.

Kelly Johnston, executive director of Partners in Protection Association, a group of national, provincial and municipal bodies that run FireSmart Canada, said the organization got going in the 1990s in response to the growing threat posed by wildfires.

Hundreds of communities in British Columbia and Alberta have since undertaken preventive programs, but only about 30 (and Fort McMurray is not on the list) have made the full sweep of changes needed to be certified as a "FireSmart community." The program is organized around "seven disciplines": the education of people about the risks of living in forested areas; fuels management, or the thinning and removal of trees; legislation, such as bylaws banning wood-shake roofs; development guidelines to ensure new projects are fire-safe; planning for catastrophic fire; training structural firefighters to deal with wildfire; and development of a strategy for inter-agency co-operation.

Mr. Johnston said interest in the program is growing. Most participating communities are in B.C. and Alberta, but a few are in Ontario and Newfoundland.

Many more communities need to get involved, he said. "We continue to try to stop these fires with fire suppression alone and that just doesn't work. Everybody needs to put as much effort into mitigation as they do into fire suppression."

The small town of Logan Lake, about 50 kilometres southwest of Kamloops in southern B.C., is one place that took that message to heart.

Mayor Robin Smith said her community began to work at the program about a decade ago, after several big forest fires in the region.

"We have created a fire break around the whole community of Logan Lake and then we cleaned up all the brush and low-lying branches and anything that could be forest-fire fuel … we've reworked all those areas over time and are just making sure we keep on top of the fuel out there," she said.

In B.C., $10-million to $12-million is allocated annually to local governments and First Nations for forest-fire prevention programs, primarily FireSmart, under the Strategic Wildfire Prevention Initiatives.

However, the B.C. Forest Practices Board in a report last year said the funding isn't adequate and only about 10 per cent of the forests that need to be treated have been.

A water bomber drops a load.of fire retardant on Pinnacle Ridge in East Kelowna, B.C. on Sept. 7, 2003.

A water bomber drops a load.of fire retardant on Pinnacle Ridge in East Kelowna, B.C. on Sept. 7, 2003.

Nick Procaylo/The Canadian Press

In Alberta, which this week approved 34 FireSmart projects, about $4-million to $5-million a year is spent on FireSmart through the Forest Resource Improvement Association of Alberta (FRIAA) and a community grant program.

Todd Nash, manager of FRIAA, said not enough communities are applying for grants. "If you haven't faced an emergency in your own community, it doesn't hit home."

Alan Westhaver, a consultant based in Fernie, B.C., last year did a report for the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, looking at FireSmart projects done in Kelowna and Slave Lake after the catastrophic fires.

He found that, while a lot of good work had been done in both communities, Kelowna rated poorly in one key area – the fire zones immediately around many homes were still hazardous.

"People are really not getting the message. I was really surprised," he said.

By contrast, Mr. Westhaver said, homeowners in Slave Lake did a much better job of fire-proofing their yards and the wider community. "It seems like there is a real culture of change there."

As recent pictures from Fort McMurray have illustrated, fire seems to skip capriciously through urban areas, burning some buildings while leaving others untouched.

But Mr. Westhaver, who looked at more than 400 homes in Kelowna and Slave Lake after wildfires swept through those communities, says it's not a fluke some buildings survive. Those that do are usually built with fire-resistant material, with yards clear of fuel, and are surrounded by carefully managed forest zones. In a word, they are FireSmart.

Mr. Westhaver said he had "a real sinking feeling in my heart" when he saw images of the neighbourhoods reduced to ash in Fort McMurray.

"This seems so senseless," he said. "There are things we can do to prevent disasters like this from happening."

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