Canadian Underwriter

Communities using development permits to reduce risk of wildfire: ICLR

May 31, 2018   by Jason Contant

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Reducing the risk of wildfire, several communities in western Canada are using development permits as a way to address construction of new residential development in the wildland-urban interface, the Institute for Catastrophe Loss Reduction (ICLR) noted in a recent report.

More than a dozen communities in British Columbia and Alberta have begun to use development permits to control the extent, nature and location of new residential development, ICLR executive director Paul Kovacs wrote in Development permits: An emerging policy instrument for local governments to manage interface fire risk in a changing climate.

Some local governments now include covenants in the development permit system requiring fire resilient building materials for new homes, the report notes.

Conditions for approving a development permit may include:

  • fire-retardant roofing
  • exterior walls sheathed with fire-resistive materials
  • windows with tempered or double-glazed glass
  • decks built with fire-resistant materials
  • screens on all eaves, attics and roof vents
  • chimney spark arrestors

“The provincial and territorial governments do not presently include provisions addressing the risk of damage from wildland fires through their building codes,” Kovacs wrote. “[F]ortunately, these public safety measures are now emerging in local government development permit requirements.”

The report used the following three case examples as an overview of the range of planning actions that have been taken by local governments.

  • Nelson, B.C. – The official community plan bylaw for Nelson – which experiences hot, dry summers and is located in a region with high wildfire risk – includes four pages of wildfire interface design guidelines in its development permit area regulations. Among other requirements, the plan identifies allowed, encouraged and not-permitted building materials for new homes. Nelson requires a fire-resistant roof and siding, as well as screened soffits. Siding that is not permitted includes wood siding, shingles or shakes; roofing that cannot be used includes untreated wood shingles or shakes. “Nelson is specific in the building materials required to secure approval, in contrast to the ambiguity found in other jurisdictions,” the report said.
  • Swan Hills, Alberta – The town’s land use bylaw is 107 pages in length. The bylaw includes a section setting out FireSmart regulations for dwellings and structures and a three-page appendix identifying fire-resistant plants. Some of the requirements include roofing on all structures be ULC (Underwriter Laboratory of Canada) fire-rated and all property owners undertake vegetation management within 10 metres of a build. While most other communities assessed in the study chose to focus on regulating new residential development, Swan Hills’ bylaw appears to apply to new and existing homes.
  • District of North Vancouver, B.C. – The district issued a 25-page document setting out requirements for new development permits in natural hazards zones. North Vancouver requires that new homes in wildfire areas use fire-retardant roofing, and asphalt or metal roofing should be given preference. As well, new building construction should include the use of firebreaks, which may be in the form of cleared parkland, roads or utility right of ways and desks, porches and balconies should be sheathed with fire-resistive materials.

“The use of local government planning tools to address wildfire emerging in British Columbia and Alberta is likely to spread across Canada,” Kovacs wrote, noting that in 2014, a revised provincial policy statement by the Government of Ontario introduced new requirements for local governments under the Planning Act. Local governments in Ontario are now required to use their planning powers to address flood and wildfire.