Better standards may have saved homes

Better standards may have saved homes

20 May 2011

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Canada — A top Canadian National Fire Protection Association official says many Slave Lake homes could have been saved if fire-code changes recommended after a major urban wildfire in British Columbia eight years ago had been followed.

Sean Tracey said there’s scientific evidence that fireproofing homes in forested areas dramatically increases their chances of remaining intact.

He rejected the assertion by Premier Ed Stelmach this week that nothing could have prevented the unprecedented Slave Lake disaster that destroyed an estimated one third of the homes in the northern Alberta community of 7,000.

“I find that hard to believe,” he said. “I think that’s not true. He might not have been given good advice on that.”

He said numerous studies have shown that proper subdivision design standards can increase the survivability of structures. Studies in 1973 and 1984 have shown clearing vegetation away from structures and requiring them to have non-flammable roofs increased the chances of the buildings surviving a fire by 86 to 95 per cent.

“We might not have saved all of these structures, but we would have saved some of them,” Tracey said. “There are indeed design standards that have proven time and time again to have worked.”

The NFPA submitted proposals to the Alberta Safet y Cod e s Committee last month seeking to have FireSmart design practices incorporated into the provincial building code, Tracey said.

The organization, which sets training and certification standards for North American firefighters, is also pressing for similar changes to the national building code in 2017.

The code changes, recommended by a task force in 2003 after a fire near Kelowna, B.C., destroyed 238 homes, would require communities assessed to be at risk to ensure buildings have fire-rated roofing, noncombustible siding and vegetation setbacks, he explained.

A KPMG fire review of Alberta’s 1998 fire season, which made 56 recommendations to better suppress forest fires and protect Alberta communities, said there are 321 communities located in or near provincial Crown forests, “and the subsequent demands for protection are significant.”

Michele Steinberg, who manages a Firewise program in the United States, said Stelmach’s remarks are a common misconception.

“Most people think there is nothing you can do about the problem. They think it’s a major disaster that’s inevitable,” she said. “It’s no guarantee, but fire science shows a lot of homes do survive these fires, and there are reasons why.”

Her organization (www.firewise. org) provides information on how homeowners can protect their dwellings from forest fires. It operates a community-based program that encourages residents to work together to make their communities safer.

Firewise, which is very similar Alberta’s FireSmart program, started with 12 pilot communities in 2002 and now has 700 communities participating in 41 states, she said.

Steinberg warns the danger of urban-wildfire interface fires is increasing because more North Americans are moving into rural areas than ever before and climatic conditions are changing as a result of global warming.

“You have a lot more people in harm’s way than you had 20 years ago,” she said. “I wish I could say the problem is going away, but we see more urgently the need for an awareness and action on the ground.”

Dave Ealey, a spokesman for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, said the ministry responsible for forest fire fighting has learned from previous fires and has improved communication and fire prevention. He said SRD has implemented 90 per cent of the recommendations from the KPMG report and a subsequent report from the Chisholm fire.

The FireSmart program was launched as a result of those recommendations, but a University of Alberta study shows there has been limited implementation of forest fire prevention measures by Alberta municipalities, largely due to costs and inadequate staffing levels.

Ealey said it is up to municipalities in at-risk forested areas to implement the FireSmart program, and they ignore it at their own peril.

“I hope it doesn’t take things like what happened in Slave Lake, but there are always ways we can work with people to try to convince them that the urban-wildland interface does have some major hazards,” he said. “We’re continuing to try to get that message out there.”

Urban Wildfire Disasters:

1886 Vancouver Settlement destroyed

1898 New Westminster, B.C. Town severely damaged

1908 Fernie, B.C. Town destroyed

1994 Penticton, B.C. 18 homes destroyed

1998 Salmon Arm, B.C. 40 buildings destroyed

2001 Chisholm 10 homes destroyed

2003 McClure Lake, B.C. 72 homes destroyed

2003 Okanagan Mountain Park, B.C.

238 homes destroyed

Source: NFPA

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