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opinion

Glenn McGillivray is managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction and adjunct professor of disaster and emergency management at York University. Kelvin Hirsch is a retired wildland fire researcher and forest research director who worked with Natural Resources Canada’s Canadian Forest Service for 33 years.

The fact that 18.5 million hectares of forest were burned in Canada last wildfire season is incomprehensible. The country has never seen a year like it, not even close. The previous record was 7.6 million hectares set in 1989.

This is a portent for the future.

There are many aspects to the wildfire dilemma, with some appearing to be “wicked problems.” But the issue of wildfires igniting homes and structures in our communities is not one of them. We know what has to be done to make our communities “FireSmart” – we just need to decide to do it.

Often in our lines of work we hear from naysayers that pro-actively protecting an individual structure against wildfire in an interface community is a waste of time and money if the entire community doesn’t follow suit. There’s no point in doing this, some argue, because the protected structure will inevitably get consumed by fire anyway.

This is a huge misconception.

Of course, we would prefer that an entire neighbourhood or community mitigate the risk. But when this is not possible – as it can be challenging to get everyone on board at the same time, and not everyone has the financial or physical means to act – reducing the ignition potential of individual structures makes a big difference.

We’ve seen it firsthand. Amid the devastation in places such as Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2016 and this year in B.C.’s West Kelowna area, there were numerous structural survival success stories – homes that did not burn, even though they were located adjacent to or among others that did.

A common method of conducting forensic investigations associated with wildfires involves analyzing homes that survived a fire located right next to homes that were lost. Extensive research has shown that luck has very little to do with why a home survives an ember storm. Instead, what has been found is that the small things matter as much as the big things.

We built a volcano, and then threw Alberta in

Having non-combustible roofing, siding and decking, mesh-covered vents, and external sprinkler systems are key, but it is also absolutely essential to have no flammable material within 1.5 metres of a structure. This means having no wood mulch, coniferous shrubs, wood piles, wooden sheds, wooden fencing, fuel cans and propane tanks, picnic tables, scrap building material and the like right beside the home.

When you live downtown in a large urban centre, these things may not matter very much. But when you live in an at-risk community nestled among forests and grasslands, they can make the difference between a home being destroyed by fire or not.

Fire has been occurring on the Canadian landscape for millenniums, and it is an important ecological process. Saying that it can or should be removed to protect communities is like saying we should remove rain to prevent flooding or wind to prevent wind damage. Besides, we’ve tried to eliminate wildfire from the landscape, and failed miserably – because nature usually wins.

Various options have been suggested for how to best protect communities against wildfires, including having more firefighters and equipment, forest thinning and prescribed burning. All of these ideas (and others) have merit and should not be discounted, but the real root of the problem is that our at-risk communities are simply too flammable.

The science is clear: Although the risk will never be zero, a prerequisite to having any chance of avoiding wildland-urban interface disasters is reducing the ignition potential of structures. Pragmatically speaking, this means beginning risk-mitigation efforts at the structure level, and working outward across the community and into the surrounding forest.

If we had unlimited resources – in terms of both money and time – we could do it all at once: fuels management across the broad landscape as well as around and within communities, while simultaneously using techniques from the FireSmart program for homes and neighbourhoods. But we don’t, so let’s prioritize our efforts and investments to maximize their benefits and effectiveness.

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