Wildfire season has arrived in B.C.
Even though it’s early in the summer, some areas in the province — especially the Okanagan — are already experiencing devastating outcomes, particularly in the case of Lytton, which was all but destroyed by a wildfire that tore through the town.
Depending on weather conditions and temperatures, wildfires can spread across terrain at alarming speeds, going from burning remotely to threatening a community sometimes within minutes.
From a jurisdictional standpoint, member East Kootenay municipalities, First Nations communities, and electoral areas in the RDEK have partnered together for a region-based and integrated emergency management program, with an emergency operations centre based in Cranbrook.
Bearing recent examples in mind, local government officials are encouraging residents, both inside and beyond Cranbrook’s municipal boundary, to make an emergency kit and emergency plan just in case an evacuation is necessary.
“The best thing the public can do, or community members can do, is be prepared themselves,” said Fiona Dercole, Protective Services Manager for the Regional District of East Kootenay.
An emergency kit should consist of items such as non-perishable food, clothing, a flashlight and copies of important documents. Ideally, an emergency plan includes elements such as preparing for exit routes inside the home and neighbourhood, a meeting place to reunite with the family if separated, an out-of-town contact person.
It’s also important to make a plan specifically geared towards pets or livestock, should there be a need to quickly evacuate.
In the event of a catastrophic natural disaster, such as a wildfire or a flood, there are different stages to a potential evacuation.
For wildfires — arguably the biggest threat in the region during the summer — there is the BC Wildfire Service smartphone app, or a dashboard on the BC Wildfire Service website, which provides a map of wildfire activity across the province.
Based on how close wildfires are burning to a community, people are typically on a heightened awareness, in case fire behaviour radically changes.
However, if a building or community is potentially threatened, an evacuation alert will be issued. An evacuation alert signals that anyone in the affected area should take the time to pack essential items and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
In some emergency situations, notifications can jump straight to an evacuation order — that means anyone in the affected area must leave immediately.
Once an evacuation order is rescinded, residents in the affected area can return, however, an evacuation order may be reinstated depending on conditions.
Typically, when there’s an evacuation order put in place, an emergency reception centre is set up as close to the incident as possible. Anyone under an evacuation order is encouraged to register at the emergency reception centre — even if they leave the region — in order for authorities to account for all residents affected by the evacuation order.
During evacuation orders, Emergency Support Services (ESS) is also activated, which helps coordinate government agencies and service groups to assist displaced residents.
Tracking evacuation alerts and evacuation orders is made easier through an app or a registration service offered by a third party through the RDEK called Voyent Alert.
The app, which can be downloaded onto a smartphone, essentially tracks addresses that the user pins on a map or registers with their profile.
For example, if a user registers a primary or secondary home, the app will sent an alert or text message to a mobile phone if the property falls under an evacuation alert or evacuation order. The RDEK also has an email notification system that residents can sign up for, and also coordinates messaging through in-house social media channels and local media sources.
As conditions dry out and the summer heats up, wildfire season has begun in earnest, with resources already stretched thin throughout the province.
In Cranbrook’s case, much of the traditional concern from wildfire danger has centred on the city’s southern boundary in the Gold Creek region and beyond.
However, a significant amount of work covering 300 hectares of land has been done to thin the forests and reduce fuels in the area, according to Scott Driver, the Director of Fire and Emergency Services for the City of Cranbrook.
Much of the wildfire mitigation work was grant funded from the province and carried out by local forestry companies with support from local representatives from the Ministry of Forestry, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.
“They’ve done a lot of wildfire thinning and fuel reduction work out there, which is a very, very large tract of land,” said Driver. “They’ve reduced an enormous amount of fuel on the southern boundary. It’s not a fire break, but what it is, is a fuel reduced area that gives an opportunity for wildfire suppression crews and fire departments to get ahead of the fire and possibly stop an incoming fire.”
The yellow shaded area shows where fuel reduction treatments and forestry thinning have occurred.
While local and senior levels of government continue to address the forest fuel situation on the edges of the city boundary, there are things residents and homeowners can do to reduce risk on their properties as well, by by following FireSmart strategies.
The basic principle is to start at the home and work outwards to create non-combustible buffer zones.
Following FireSmart principles can be as simple as considering housing building materials, clearing gutters of dry leaves, keeping flammable shrubs (or a woodpile) away from the house.
Even doing little things around a residential property can go a long way to reducing the risk of a wildfire spreading from house-to-house-to-house, according to Travis Abbey, the FireSmart Cranbrook representative.
“To tell someone to go change the wood siding on their house — not very practical, but to tell them it might be an idea to take those four juniper shrubs away from the side of their house, because that will absolutely ignite the cedar siding of your house,” Abbey said.
Wildfire danger doesn’t just come from a wall of flame bearing down on a house or community; depending on wind and weather conditions, ember showers can blow in from a wildfire event and ignite a dry fuel sources, creating secondary spot fires.
Abbey will be holding FireSmart workshops in RDEK communities, starting in Invermere on July 19, Cranbrook on July 20 and Jaffray on July 26th. The workshops are open to any residents in those communities and outlying rural areas and there is no cost to attend.
FireSmart resoureces are available on the RDEK’s website.
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