A lack of both rain and mountain snow pack mean forest fire season is already upon us, and that could spell trouble if this summer turns out to be as dry as last year.
Pat Walker, assistant fire chief for the Township of Langley, said the dangerous season arrived ahead of schedule, and began in late April, instead of June.
“We are all on alert,” Walker said of fire crews across the region.
Although the province’s fire danger rating is currently low in most of the Fraser Valley, Walker said it would only take a couple of weeks of zero rainfall for that to change to extreme.
And that means campers need to abide by campfire bans, and drivers who pull over to the side of the highway need to ensure the hot underbelly of their vehicle doesn’t spark a grass fire.
Could a forest fire like the one that devastated Fort McMurray occur in the Fraser Valley?
Early awareness key
There’s been years of preparation and planning, Walker said, to ensure that doesn’t happen in his neck of the woods, with people and technology amongst the biggest safeguards.
With so many people living in the Lower Mainland, there’s a greater likelihood a fire in a heavily-wooded area like a park will be spotted and reported — thanks to the prevalence of cell phones — soon after it starts, he said.
A lot was learned, Walker said, from the wildfires in Salmon Arm in the summer of 1998. Sparked by an electrical storm and fueled by 100 km/h winds, the Silver Creek forest fire damaged more than 60 square kilometres of forest, destroyed 20 homes, more than 100 barns and outbuildings, and led to the evacuation of 7,500 residents.
Firefighters learned that fires involving man-made structures behave differently and present other challenges than fires that occur where urban development brushes up against woodlands.
Public education goes a long way in reducing fire risk in cities, Walker said, but technology also helps. The province has a lightning detection system that alerts officials to areas that have been struck.
In the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley, there’s ample access to water, fuel and airports for aircraft that would be mobilized to fight a large forest fire from overhead.
“We’re very fortunate within B.C. that we have these resources so close,” he said.
The destruction in Fort McMurray did not go unnoticed by emergency planners.
But there are also some important differences between the Fort McMurray area and the Lower Mainland, according to Walker.
Trees here are bigger in diameter and taller, making them more resistant to fires, and there’s more moisture here that keeps those trees from drying out, he said.
On the other hand, trees surrounding Fort McMurray are smaller and drier, which makes them more susceptible to catching fire.
Maple Ridge to employ social media
With the northern part of Maple Ridge nestled against the 550-square-kilometre Golden Ears Provincial Park, that city has developed a detailed emergency response plan and has taken a close look at the threat of fires in the neighbourhoods nestled against wooded areas.
City spokesperson Fred Armstrong said firefighters have received specialized training and equipment to suppress these types of fires.
“If memory serves, some of our firefighters even had the opportunity to use the equipment and training to support their colleagues in fires in central B.C. in past years,” Armstrong said.
Maple Ridge’s fire department also has plans in place to transport water to areas not served by hydrants, and has operational agreements with fire departments in nearby cities to “ensure that resources are available to support an incident in any of the communities we neighbour.”
The city’s building bylaws were also recently changed, to ensure that building materials and home landscaping ease the impact of a potential forest fire.
In the event of a fire in a residential neighbourhood surrounded by trees, the city has an evacutation plan which was recently reviewed.
Armstrong credited first responders for their quick actions in response to the Fort McMurray catastrophe.
“All of us at city hall watched the situation in Fort McMurray carefully,” he said.
“In B.C., all communities learned important lessons on forest interface fires when Kelowna dealt with a similar situation as Fort Mac in the mid-2000s,” he said. The 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire south of Kelowna destroyed more than 200 homes and 250 square kilometres of forest, and led to the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.
While the City of Maple Ridge has been working to get itself ready, officials are encouraging residents to do the same by signing up for an emergency notification system that can deliver alerts directly to smart phones or via e-mail.
“I would urge people to set that up now, rather than wait until a floods, fire or earthquake,” he said, adding authorities plan to use social media to help communicate with residents as well.
Abby has evac plans
Abbotsford Fire Chief Don Beer said his city is well prepared for a forest fire.
“Abbotsford has a lot of urban forested areas with homes and structures on the forest edge so there is always a risk of interface fires, especially with extended dry conditions,” he said.
What happened in Fort McMurray is tragic, Beers said.
“We feel for the citizens and their losses. It is my understanding that the make up of the boreal forest along with sustained winds contributed to the devastation. Our forest conditions in Abbotsford are much different than in Fort McMurray…”
Efforts are underway to develop an evacuation plan with the city and local police, he said.
One of the keys is to notify residents as early as possible and begin the evacuation efforts long before the flames and smoke begin to impact exit routes, he said.
According to the Ministry of Forests, the province has spent $78 million on wildfire prevention planning to help reduce wildfire risks around their communities.
In February, the province announced a new $85-million group to focus on wildfire risk reduction in areas outside the jurisdiction of local government.
For more on wildfire prevention, visit www.bcwildfire.ca/prevention