There is a tiny silver lining in the clouds of smoke from the devastating Fort McMurray wildfire which left a residential wasteland in its wake.
But unfortunately, according to fire suppression experts, too often it takes a natural disaster like the one in Alberta to wake people up to the potentially deadly situation in their own backyard.
That concern was evident last Sunday in the Sendero Canyon development in east Penticton as many families braved windy, rainy conditions to learn steps they could take to mitigate damages in the event of a wildfire.
FireSmart Canada is a project of the Partners In Protection Association whose executive director Kelly Johnston was joined Sunday by officials from Penticton Fire Rescue, the B.C. Wildfire Management Branch and the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen for the information session.
“What it does is first of all is help residents recognize the risk that they face and encourage them to move forward in mitigating that risk,” said Johnston, who toured some of the properties with owners pointing out potential problem areas. “There is something that can be done, but it has to be before the fire starts and that’s what we’re trying to get the homeowners to do.”
Sendero Canyon is about 72 acres in size, is located just north of Carmi Avenue and is largely surrounded by forested land.
“The biggest thing we find in wildfires impacting communities is embers, the big fires generate a lot of heat and push embers up into the air and those embers land on susceptible structures and eventually burn the structure down,” said Johnston.
Sendero resident Andrea Friess who volunteered to be the “neighbourhood champion” for the FireSmart project believes area homeowners have been motivated by the Alberta fire to do more to protect themselves
“Nobody actually showed up for the first meeting, but this time they did,” she said. “The fire in Fort Mac really makes you look at it a lot differently, it really was an eye opener because if that can happen to Fort Mac, just think of what it could do to Penticton or anywhere in the Okanagan.
“You see stuff like that and it just breaks your heart. Every summer every day you just keep your fingers crossed.”
She and her husband moved to B.C. a year ago from Calgary to be closer to nature, but are well aware of the potential for a wildfire and are prepared.
“We’ve got an emergency pack in the house so in case we ever get evacuated, we’re ready to go,” said Friess. “I can’t imagine starting from scratch, I mean everything is gone and those things that go up in flames that you can never replace. Do it before it is too late, that is a very important message.”
Landscaping and storage of flammable materials such as propane tanks can not only protect a resident’s own home but the neighbour’s as well according to Penticton Fire Chief Larry Watkinson, who was in attendance with Deputy Chief Dave Spalding.
“So much better to keep it proactive, you can imagine if we did no work (in advance) the survival chances of these properties would be next to zero,” said Watkinson. “When we have a wildfire approaching we’re going to triage these homes, we’re going to say ‘okay, that’s saveable that’s not saveable.’
“We’re going to save a house because it’s fire smart, because it’s got the mitigation that will support our efforts.”
Johnston agreed: “Firefighters are very quickly overwhelmed, they have the capacity to deal with one, maybe two structures fully involved but once multiple structures beyond that become involved the fire suppression capability is null and void.”
Watkinson believes programs like FireSmart help bring the city’s “sense of urgency” about preparedness to the forefront.
“I think this event was a great example of the partnerships that need to occur and Penticton has the opportunity to be the shining example of fire smart and risk mitigation in Canada,” said Johnston.