In the wake of one of the worst ever fire seasons in Alberta and B.C., Parks Canada is doing a comprehensive wildfire risk assessment for the mountain national parks, including Banff and the townsite.
As part of budget deliberations Monday (Dec. 4), Banff town council unanimously voted to kick in $15,000 to the federal agency’s $94,000 study to look at the likelihood of wildfire and possible measures to reduce the threat to Banff.
Banff residents were on high alert this summer, with the Verdant Creek fire burning 18,017 hectares, shutting down backcountry areas, closing Highway 93 South, and forcing evacuation of Sunshine Village and the historic Kootenay Park Lodge.
Banff Councillor Corrie DiManno voiced strong support for spending the dollars.
“As a decision-maker, when you see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse coming into town this summer with ashes falling down, you think ‘my goodness! What did we not pass at the last budget,’ ” she said.
“I’m happy to support this and pleased this work is being done.”
The effects of global warming on temperature, precipitation levels, and soil moisture are turning many forests into kindling – and fires in North America are expected to burn more frequently, with more intensity and become increasingly unpredictable.
The Parks Canada study, being conducted with the Canadian Forest Service, will use modelling to consider the likelihood of a fire occurring and potential effects of a large, uncontrolled wildfire on park communities, including Banff, Lake Louise and Field.
The biggest fire threat to Banff comes from the west or southwest, where the forest continues to age and thicken following a century of wildfire suppression before Parks began a prescribed fire program in the 1980s.
Parks Canada fire experts say although the likelihood of fire burning around various park communities may be highly variable, the potential negative impacts of wildfires are extremely high.
In fact, they say that given high visitation numbers within these national parks – Banff is now seeing about four million visitors a year – wildfires pose a serious threat to human safety.
Jane Park, who was Parks’ incident commander for the Verdant Creek fire, said the risk assessment will result in ways to mitigate risk of a wildfire, such as prescribed fires, logging and thinning, and FireSmart initiatives around town.
“We’re looking at other things like the probability of ignition due to lightning, but also illegal starts. We all know our visitation is increasing in summer, so how does that affect burn probability?” she said.
“Then there’s also climate change. If our seasons are getting longer, and if they’re hotter or drier, how does it effect wildfire risk to these communities?” added Park, a fire and vegetation specialist for Banff National Park.
The lightning-sparked Verdant Creek fire in Kootenay National Park was first discovered on July 15. It completely burned down a backcountry warden cabin the following day as 70 km/h winds spread the fire quickly.
At the height of the fire, under extreme fire conditions, there were nine helicopters working with two additional machines available for initial attack, and more than 100 personnel.
During and after the wildfire, as well as the fire in Waterton Lakes National Park that threatened the town, residents raised concerns over the risk of wildfire to Banff and communication of the municipality’s evacuation plans.
“I think the Town of Banff is underestimating the risk to the town,” said long-term resident Keith Webb at Monday’s council budget meeting.
Webb praised the continuing work of the fire department to prepare for a possible fire, as well as the municipality’s incentive program for residents to replace highly flammable shake roofs in higher risk areas in town.
But Webb said he believes there’s a lack of FireSmart practices on private lands in Banff, adding there are too many fire-prone spruce trees too close to hundreds of homes throughout town.
If FireSmart were followed to the letter, there would be no trees within 10 metres of buildings. He said the big danger is from those trees catching fire, noting several of the municipality’s bylaws and land use policies could lead to a wildfire catastrophe.
“Why are Parks Canada and the fire department cutting down and burning trees in and around Banff, while Town of Banff land use policies promote the retention of spruce trees, and replanting with spruce trees on private land?” asked Webb.
“After the Verdant burn, the Kenow fire in Waterton, the 220-plus fires across B.C. last summer, the Fort McMurray ‘Beast’ fire, the Slave Lake and the Kelowna fires should have served as a wakeup call.”
The Parks Canada risk assessment will cover Banff, Yoho, Kootenay, Jasper and Waterton Lakes, including communities within each park. Alberta Agriculture and Forestry is doing a similar project across the province.
In addition, Parks Canada is also planning to do some forest thinning work around the Valleyview neighbourhood on the south side of the Bow River, as well as some work by the Banff Springs golf course.
The agency is also working on plans to create a large fire guard through logging and hand thinning in a 300-hectare area on the west slope of Sulphur Mountain, which Parks said ties in to previous work in the area over the past 10 to 15 years.
“If a fire does approach from the west, which is the most likely scenario, that’s kind of a piece of land that will be producing potentially dangerous embers from the other side of Sulphur Mountain,” said Park.
Coun. Chip Olver has been encouraging more communication concerning the town’s wildfire work and evacuation plans. She voiced strong support for providing $15,000 towards the risk assessment.
“This sounds like exactly what we want,” she said.