Slave Lake shows need for national wildfire strategy

Slave Lake shows need for national wildfire strategy
28 September 2011

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Canada — In the past, most Canadians have looked upon instances of evacuations and damage from wildfire with more pity than self-consternation.

After all, with the exception of then-record wildfire losses experienced in British Columbia in 2003 – $200 million in insurance claims – damage to Canadian property and loss of life from wildfires has historically been minimal.

The May 15 wildfire in Slave Lake changed all that, as the blaze triggered preliminary insured losses of an unprecedented $700 million, making it the second most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history. That’s from the loss of one-third of a town of just 7,500 residents. The question is: what if a big fire got into a larger community?

As a result of a strained but reasonably effective and well-co-ordinated wildfire-fighting infrastructure, plus no small measure of good luck, losses of the magnitude seen fairly regularly in the U.S. and Australia had yet to materialize in Canada. The disconcerting fact, however, is that the conditions which exist in such places as southern California also exist, in large measure, in many parts of Canada. In short, there are hundreds of potential Slave Lakes across the country.

It must be stressed that certain communities in this country have dodged a rather large bullet. Yet several factors are converging to create a perfect storm of sorts, and numerous stakeholders – including disaster managers, first responders, insurers, homeowners and policy-makers – need to head off a potentially bleak future of more and larger wildland/ urban interface fires in Canada.

The good news is that most of the ground work has already been done.

On June 23, 2004, in Haines Junction, Yukon, the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers (CCFM) identified the need for a new, strategic approach to wildland fire management in Canada; one that is based on a risk-management framework. The council, which is composed of 14 federal, provincial and territorial forest ministers, also created an Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM)level Task Group – co-led by Natural Resources Canada and British Columbia – and charged it with the development of the Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy (CWFS).

In October 2005 at the CCFM meeting in Saskatoon, the ministers signed the CWFS Declaration, expressing their unanimous commitment to a new common vision, shared principles and a proposed path of action to enhance wildland fire management across the country. The ADM Task Group also completed the CWFS Vision, which reviewed the current state of fire management in Canada, identified critical issues and trends and described the desired future state that all agencies will strive to achieve over the next decade.

At that time, the ministers agreed to a 50-50 split of the costs to implement the strategy, which was to receive $230 million annually for up to 10 years.

The strategy focuses on four objectives:

? public education and policy/risk analysis related to wildland fires;

? support for FireSmart programs designed to reduce risks associated with the interface between wildland and urban areas;

? emergency preparedness and response capability;

? multi-disciplinary innovation intended to bolster decision support systems.

The bad news is that the CWFS has largely languished since 2005. As a result, the plan has only been implemented on a piecemeal basis. But given what’s going on in Alberta and other places in Canada, hopefully there will be momentum toward a federal and provincial ministerial meeting dealing with wildland fire in the very near future.

The plan is ready. It does not have to be developed. The federal government must simply take an active role in carrying the plan forward.

The 2003 wildfires in B.C. – and the damage done in Kelowna in particular – had been viewed by some as simply a one-off event that likely would never happen again. This view has proven wrong.

In one of the most heavily forested countries in the world, where more and more people are choosing to live in built-up areas that abut forests, and with aging firefighting equipment and a changing climate, how many more times can we label as “just a fluke” a large, damaging wildfire before we take decisive action to better manage this hazard now and into the future?

Brian Stocks is president of B.J. Stocks Wild fire Investigations Ltd. Paul Kovacs is executive director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction.

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