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One of the worst wildland/urban interface fire disasters in modern Canadian history could be repeated, study suggests


September 9, 2015   by Canadian Underwriter


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Present conditions at the study sites of one of the worst wildland/urban interface (WUI) fire disasters in modern Canadian history – the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park wildfire in Kelowna, British Columbia – indicate that the disaster could be repeated, the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) said in a paper released on Wednesday.

The paper, titled Risk reduction status of homes reconstructed following wildfire disasters in Canada, was completed by Alan Westhaver, principal at ForestWise Environmental Consulting Ltd. in Fernie, B.C., who recently retired following 34 years of service with Parks Canada (27 of them as a senior wildland fire manager). The study examined an aspect of wildfire disaster mitigation and recovery that has not been previously investigated in Canada, the ICLR said: “to what degree have homeowners actually adopted and implemented FireSmart measures to mitigate the risk of future wildfire losses.” [click image below to enlarge]

The study assessed current wildfire hazard at 445 homes reconstructed since the two worst WUI fire disasters in modern Canadian history – the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park fire in Kelowna, British Columbia and the 2011 Flat Top Complex of wildfires in Slave Lake, Alberta

FireSmart involves partnerships, such as through community associations, local industries and municipal governments/fire departments and wildfire management agency personnel, to understand how to manage wildfires. According to the FireSmart website, the seven disciplines consist of education, vegetation management, legislation and planning, development considerations, interagency cooperation, emergency planning and cross training.

The study assessed current wildfire hazard at 445 homes reconstructed since the 2003 Kelowna fire and another one of the worst WUI disasters in modern Canadian history – the 2011 Flat Top Complex of wildfires in Slave Lake, Alberta – against recommended FireSmart guidelines. “This comparison created a reliable measure of the degree to which FireSmart guidelines have been accepted and adopted by homeowners,” said the paper’s executive summary.

While the study found a range of adoption to FireSmart solutions, interestingly, none of the reconstructed homes in any jurisdiction featured combustible wood roofing material – representing a 100% compliance with FireSmart guidelines. [click image below to enlarge]

In general, the results showed that a few FireSmart solutions have been widely adopted by homeowners, others in part, and some very little or not at all

The study focused on hazard mitigations applied by residents at, or very near to, private homes, but did not assess the broad scale wildfire mitigations applied by Kelowna or Slave Lake authorities on public lands, such as extensive fuel treatments, fire guards, public education initiatives and other FireSmart activities identified in their Community Wildfire Protection Plans.

In general, the results showed that a few FireSmart solutions have been widely adopted by homeowners, others in part, and some very little or not at all. The degree of adoption for known risk mitigations varied between geographic areas, between different categories of wildfire hazards, within categories of related hazard factors, and spatially within the “home ignition zone.” For example, spatial analysis of hazards within the home ignition zone revealed that the greatest degree of hazard, and lowest compliance with guidelines, existed in the most critical area (i.e. the home and the first 10 metres beyond). [click image below to enlarge]

Non-conforming vegetation/fuel accounted for 58% of all wildfire hazards

“Without exception, it was concluded that the lowest levels of compliance pertained to guidelines for mitigating hazards associated with vegetation/fuel conditions in all fuel layers, and in all three FireSmart Priority Zones,” the paper said.

The study also revealed similarities among levels of adoption for some risk mitigations. Differences between urban centres and more rural settings were minor. Overall, twice as many wildfire hazard factors received a poor adoption grade, than those that attained an “excellent” rating.

Specifically, the degree to which guidelines have been adopted at private homes was rated good at Slave Lake, but fair to poor at Kelowna study sites, meaning that only conditions at Slave Lake study sites could be confidently rated as “FireSmart.” “Present conditions at Kelowna study sites could result in a repeat of 2003 events in those neighbourhoods,” the paper warned.

The Kelowna fire began on Aug. 16, 2003, was ignited by overnight lightning and grew to a final area of 26,600 hectares before being extinguished nearly 30 days later, the study noted. A total of 238 private homes were destroyed. By comparison, the Flat Top Complex of wildfires (three separate human-caused fires) began on May 14, 2011 and within 31 hours, two of these fires had destroyed 484 single family homes and many other structures. [click image below to enlarge]

The degree to which guidelines have been adopted at private homes was rated good at Slave Lake, but fair to poor at Kelowna study sites

The paper included a total of 16 recommendations, nine of which were “key” recommendations. Among the key recommendations:

• The federal government make a “strategic financial investment” in the National FireSmart initiative;

• Government agencies re-examine their communication and fire prevention programs to find ways for improving the degree of adoption of wildfire risk mitigation and increasing public engagement;

• Partners in Protection/FireSmart Canada upgrade the current FireSmart manual and gui
deline to alleviate a “alleviate a serious, documented roadblock” to adoption of risk mitigations by developing second-generation fuel treatment solutions that are effective, but also address concerns and values of homeowners regarding aesthetics, wildlife habitat, and the ecological health of WUI areas;

• Authorities at Kelowna “rejuvenate interest, awareness, and citizen engagement in wildfire risk mitigations” by formally launching the FireSmart Canada Community Recognition Program in their city;

• The Canadian Home Builders Association be approached for suggestions as to how their industry could become more formally engaged in raising FireSmart awareness among its membership; and

• The development of two additional FireSmart “guidebooks” to:

a) Distribute effective information about FireSmart vegetation management to commercial landscapers, plant nurseries, and garden supply centre personnel; and

b) Develop a FireSmart curriculum module for incorporation into horticulture, arborist, and forestry programs at accredited colleges, technical institutes and universities.

“Wildland/urban interface disasters are expected to become more frequent in the future,” the paper concluded. “Adapting current programs to promote increased adoption of wildfire risk mitigation and to reduce the risk of catastrophic losses should become an urgent priority for insurers, urban planners, municipal administrators, researchers, fire prevention educators and public safety officials at all levels of government.”