The Town of Canmore is continuing work on lowering the wildfire risk to the community through FireSmart programs and projects.
FireSmart is a provincially recognized and supported program out of Alberta Environment and Parks for communities and homeowners to protect themselves from the risk of wildfire.
For communities like Canmore, which is surrounded by provincial parks and a national park – heavily forested lands – having a strategy for addressing wildfire risk is important, according to Fire Chief Todd Sikorsky.
Sikorsky presented the current FireSmart situation for the municipality to council in December. He said 2016's wildfire in Fort McMurray was a sobering reminder for this municipality that emergency preparedness for a wildfire situation here is key.
“The big thing I want to stress is: what is FireSmart?” Sikorsky told council. “It is a program that will help protect our community.
“Each municipality can follow these principles in order to reduce the risk of wildfire.”
The chief said FireSmart would not stop a crown fire or one the size of what hit Fort Mac last year. But what it will do is help mitigate situations that arise where fire could become a threat to certain neighbourhoods.
For the most part, Sirkorsky said, the municipality has been undertaking vegetation management projects on the landscape. That means removing trees, woody vegetation and dry grassy areas (considered fuel for a wildfire) near residential subdivisions because managing vegetation lessens the risk of wildfire.
“We really have only been focusing on fuel modification to this point and there are another six principles we have not been focused on yet,” he said.
The seven principles of FireSmart, said the chief, include education, vegetation management, legislation and planning, development considerations, interagency cooperation, emergency planning and cross training.
Education would be focused on homeowners and helping them do a structural assessment of their home. That would determine if a home is at low, moderate or high risk of a wildfire. Sikorsky said an assessment would also provide homeowners with ways to mitigate wildfire threats on their property as well.
Development considerations include the type of roofing material or siding used on homes or buildings. Cedar roofing material, for example, is prohibited in Canmore's Land Use Bylaw because it catches fire more easily than other materials.
The distance between the tree line and structures and what is around any dwelling units also affect how a fire can move into the community, he said. Those are decisions made at subdivision stages of development and should be considered when landowners are applying for approvals.
Sikorsky said topography also affects how fire travels and Canmore is at a disadvantage because it is a narrow valley with steep valley sides, making it “very hard to protect.”
Space in the trees and types of trees also have an impact on fire behaviour. Sikorsky said the current rules of thumb for FireSmart is that yards are at least 10 metres from the forest, trees are spaced three metres apart and are pruned up to two metres from the ground.
The municipality began looking at FireSmart principles and pre-planning for how to respond to a wildfire in 2004 with the Westwinds Exercise.
“It was to basically take a look at a wildfire situation in Canmore,” Sikorsky said.
FireSmart, he said, is the pre-plan – or in other words – it forms the basis of how the municipality mitigates the possibility of a wildfire before it occurs.
Fuel modification work is ongoing for municipal crews, said the chief, with ongoing work in Stoneworks Creek currently going on. Also, residents have seen smoke from debris piles in the Silvertip area for the past several weeks. Areas in the Peaks of Grassi were completed earlier in 2016 as well.
The next project will see FireSmart work going on around the wastewater treatment plant, which is a key strategic infrastructure asset that would need protection in the event of a wildfire.
As for funding, Sikorsky said the municipality has spent some operating dollars on the work, but for the most part grant funding for FireSmart has come from the province.
The municipality does FireSmart work on Town-owned lands and provincial lands inside the Town's limits. However, outside those boundaries, and privately owned land inside of it, are not addressed and that is an issue.
That being said, Sikorsky pointed out the recently approved Municipal Development Plan includes a requirement for a mitigation plan for a parcel of land being considered for development before approval.
Canmore Fire-Rescue has interagency cooperation agreements with surrounding municipal fire departments and Alberta Forestry.
When it comes to emergency planning, Sikorsky reminded council that his department created a Town-wide evacuation plan in 2015.
Looking toward the future, Sikorsky said the plan is to rewrite the Town's wildfire pre-plan in 2017, revise the FireSmart plan, launch a public education program and begin maintaining areas that have already seen fuel modification in the past.