Fighting in the face of fire …

Fighting in the face of fire …

9 July 2008

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Alberta, Canada — While wildfires continue to destroy hundreds of homes in California, firefighters from Jasper and the surrounding areas got together last week to learn how to best fight fires that occur where the townsite meets the forest.

About 30 wildland and urban firefighters attended a two-day training course July 4-5 in Jasper preparing them for fires that take place in the “interface” area along town site borders.

Participants included members of the Jasper Volunteer Fire Brigade, the Jasper Park Lodge Fire Brigade and Parks Canada firefighters, while others came from Brule and as far away as Lake Louise.

There are two main types of fires that threaten towns and forests – bush and structural fires. These two types require different methods and strategies.
Course participants learned how to combine their skills and expertise from different settings and to apply them to the interface area where the town borders the forest.

The course, designed by the Jasper Volunteer Fire Brigade and Parks Canada, was led by Stew Walkinshaw, a consultant with Canmore-based Montane Forest Management Ltd., and Murray Heinrich of Palisade Consulting Ltd. in Edson. Both consultants have extensive experience with firefighting.

Alan Westhaver, Parks Canada’s Fire Smart-Forest Wise project manager, said teamwork is essential and the help of both wildland and urban firefighters would be needed in the case of an interface fire.

“It requires that our collective knowledge and skills are pulled together during a time of crisis,” he said.

Westhaver said preparation is the key to successfully fight fires.

“It’s what you do before the wildfire and training is a crucial part of being ready,” he said.

Following one day of classroom exercises, the group went outdoors to develop a plan based on a potential scenario that a wildfire was threatening houses in the Cabin Creek Drive area.
The firefighters were told that a forest fire was quickly approaching the neighbourhood, putting about 20 multi-family homes and 20 single-family homes at risk.
They were provided with an equipment list, personnel and resources and were told that the fire would reach the houses in two hours.

The goal of the exercise was to survey all threatened homes and to quickly develop a strategy to save lives and protect property.
The firefighters, much like in real-life situations, had to decide which homes could and could not be saved.

Participants discovered that several of the homes would have to be sacrificed in case of wildfire in order to save most of the neighbourhood.
They also found that preventive measures can be taken to help protect homes from wildfire.

Bob Bell, Marmot Basin’s vice-president of maintenance and operations, was one of the course participants.
Bell, who worked with the Kelowna Volunteer Fire Department for 12 years where he held the position of District Chief of Okanagan Mission, said he was impressed with the course and that it was a good opportunity to share firefighting knowledge.

While he was no longer with the Kelowna department, Bell still helped fight the fire that threatened that city and caused serious property damage in 2003.
“Jasper is a first class example of the urban wildfire interface,” said Bell. “More people are moving into forested areas.
“When the threat of fire comes, there are issues that have to be addressed.”

Bell said the course helped him and other firefighters acquire new skills through cross-training efforts and by sharing their experiences.
“Every time there is a fire, there are lessons that are learned,” he said.

Jasper residents who want a wildfire hazard assessment conducted for their homes or businesses should contact Fire Chief Greg Van Tighem at 852-1595 or Alan Westhaver at 852-6169.

Home evaluations help to determine the potential risk of wildfire and suggestions are offered about how to prevent fire hazards and loss of property.

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