Abnormally hot, dry weather resulted in over 2,500 wildfire starts over a vast area, particularly in the Interior region of the province. Interface fires – where wildland meets urban development – registered at an all-time record high.
According to the government, interface fires destroyed over 334 homes and many businesses, and forced the evacuation of over 45,000 people. The total cost of the 2003 firestorm was estimated at $700 million. Not counting, of course, three pilots who died in the line of duty.
In the aftermath of the disaster, the government established the Firestorm 2003 Provincial Review, with the mandate of “evaluating the overall response to the emergency and make recommendations for improvement in time for the next fire season across all levels of government: federal, provincial, municipal and regional.”
Equally as important was the emphasis on the role individuals homeowners can play in preparing for another disaster.
“British Columbians can consider themselves fortunate that the disaster was not worse,” reads the opening of the review’s report. “Few communities in the province would have been immune from an interface fire, given the extreme danger ratings over the course of the summer. Without action, the danger remains.”
With that in mind, the Golden Fire Department, in partnership with the Golden Fire Jumpers and B.C. Forestry, will be hosting an open house at the Golden Fire Hall on June 22, from 6:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
An information seminar of sorts, the open house is open to anyone who wishes to attend and will provide a number of product displays and presentations focusing on a Wildfire/Interface protection program, otherwise known as ‘FireSmart’.
“Basically, the forestry industry has indentified that there is a need to prepare for a wildland fire,” says Golden Fire Chief Muir Furzer. “It’s a special skill in firefighting now. They’ve set aside guidelines to help residents who live in the interface protect their homes in a wildfire situation.”
Chief Furzer points out that Golden is in a “high risk” area and is in a vulnerable position given the fact that the town hasn’t met with a major fire in over 80 years.
“We’re due,” he says. “The fuel loads are there. It’s just waiting for the right ignition source and it’s going to be up in flames. But we don’t want to use scare tactics – we want awareness.”
To that end, FireSmart looks at ways in which individuals can make their homes and properties more resistant and less at risk of severe damage by wildfires.
More specifically, the program outlines ways to manage the natural growth of a property (i.e. thinning out foliage, relocating wood piles, removing flammable shrubs etc…).
“As communities age, there’s more fuel build-up inside boundaries – like mature trees, dried grasses,” Golden Fire Jumpers co-owner Matthew Ward. “Plus the houses are so close, the fire can just spread through structures.”
While FireSmarting can’t necessarily ensure no harm will come to your property, it can certainly give you a fighting chance in the event that you are faced with an impending wildfire.
Ward indicates that part of the driving force behind FireSmart stems from the notion that once a fire gets to be a certain size, it’s nearly impossible to stop. Add to this the fact that resources get stretched thin as the size of the fire grows, and the rationale for pre-emptive action becomes all the more compelling.
“If we prepare ahead of time – make our communities defensible,” says Ward, “then we’ll actually stand a chance against these huge catastrophic fires.”
But Ward cautions locals against presuming the open house will advise getting rid of any and all natural elements on a property to protect against risk.
“People think we’re going to cut down every living thing within 30 feet of their house and pave it,” he says. “But there’s a lot of things you can do other than just killing. You can change the type of vegetation you plant, you can make sure your grass is watered, you can prune…”
“I’ve only FireSmarted a few houses but the people were very happy with how it looked when it was finished because it opened things up a little bit – it let the sunlight in.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Golden in terms of wildfire preparedness is indifference, say the FireSmart advocates.
While there is a bevy of information to be reaped from the panel of experts at the open house, such seminars have seen poor attendance in the past.
“People think: ‘it can’t happen to me – it won’t happen to me,” says Ward. “The thing that concerns us in the fire protection services is that when the crap hits the fan, it’s going to be too late.
“This isn’t the kind of thing you can run out and do the day before. Homeowners need to have control over their own property and the town needs to think about the areas beyond that.”
The town has stepped up, says Ward, pledging money towards the development of a community fire plan. Now it’s up to the citizens to take things to the next level.
“Anywhere FireSmart’s been successful, the whole community has bought into it – they’ve worked together,” he says.
The first major step people can take is to attend next week’s open house, where Chief Furzer promises plenty of exhibits on protection equipment for homeowners – like sprinkler systems for rural homes, gel and foam applications and portable fire pumps.
“I want to provide as much information to the public about FireSmart as possible,” says Furzer. “I want to make it a show: here’s our problem, here’s what we have to fix the problem. Let’s get on board and get everybody to buy into it.
“Once we get the information there, I can see people changing their apathetic attititude and realizing this is something serious.”