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Large-scale fireguards planned to protect Canmore, neighbouring hamlets

The Town of Canmore is hosting a Living with Wildfire: FireSmart forum at the Canmore Recreation Centre on Sunday, June 16 from 1-4 p.m..
Planning is underway for large-scale fireguards to protect Canmore and neighbouring communities like Harvie Heights and Dead Man’s Flats from a future wildfire. HANDOUT

CANMORE – Planning is underway for large-scale fireguards to protect Canmore and neighbouring communities like Harvie Heights and Dead Man’s Flats from a future wildfire.

Town of Canmore officials say the threat of wildfire in the Bow Valley is extreme due to increasing development and aging forests that are becoming unhealthy.

“Large-scale fireguards are required to provide wildfire responders with wildfire containment options and to reduce wildfire intensity approaching developed areas,” said Caitlin Miller, protective services manager and director of emergency management for the Town of Canmore.

The Town of Canmore was successful in getting $192,000 through the $19 million provincial community fireguard program for high-risk communities, which is being administered by the Forest Resource Improvement Association of Alberta (FRIAA).

The municipality took the lead on the grant application, but the Bow Valley fireguard program is a cooperative effort between the Town of Canmore, Kananaskis Improvement District, MD of Bighorn, Alberta Forestry and Parks, and Alberta Wildfire Management.

The $192,000 goes towards the first phase of the program, which is planning. Phase 2 is land clearing, which consists of clearing fireguards over multiple years based on priority areas and available funding. The intent is to apply for the next round of grants under the provincial program.

Wildfire is the top-rated threat identified in the Town of Canmore’s emergency management hazard identification and risk assessment.

Canmore is now heavily developed well into the wildland interface, meaning the community is increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of wildfire, and is surrounded by forests full of spruce and lodgepole pine trees, both of which are some of the least resilient tree species to wildfire.

The weather is becoming increasingly hot, dry, and windy, which Miller said enables rapid fire spread and makes fuels more receptive to ignition.

She said Canmore’s landscape features also affect fire behaviour, as steep slopes, canyons, and wind patterns can allow for a wildfire to move quickly in the area.

“With climate change, and hotter, drier summers with bigger winds, it’s making it a little harder to predict when and where it’ll happen, especially since the fire can happen everywhere,” she said.

The fireguards proposed for this program will clear areas of varying widths and types based on wildfire behaviour potential and could vary from as small as 100 metres in size to one kilometre or more.

The type of fireguard may include a variety of tactics to clear the areas, including mechanical logging, heli-harvesting, cluster thinning, and prescribed burning.

The biggest risk of a wildfire for Canmore comes from the west, but Miller said it’s important to realize climate change is leading to more unpredictable wildfires.

“A lot of the fires that have happened in the past few years have been atypical and so we’re planning for the worst-case scenario. When we’re planning for the fireguards, we’re planning for the most likely risk,” she said.

“We want to make sure that we’re protected from all sides, so eventually in our planning, we will continue to look for opportunities to put fireguards everywhere so that we can make sure that the whole community is safe.”

The majority of the conceptual fireguard areas – including both north and south sides of the Bow River stretching from Harvie Heights to Dead Man’s Flats – are on Alberta Forestry and Parks lands within the municipal boundaries of the Town of Canmore, Kananaskis Improvement District, and MD of Bighorn.

Miller said these are conceptual areas only and will be planned and established somewhere within or around these boundaries after careful planning is done through the funding provided by the FRIAA grant.

“I just want to be clear that this year is our planning year where we’re planning what work could be done and how it can be done,” she said.

“We’re looking at a variety of options.”

One of the first possibilities is an extension of the fireguard at the Canmore Nordic Centre down to the Bow River by the Trans-Canada Highway, as well as supporting work to take advantage of some of Parks Canada’s planned work for Carrot Creek and Fairholme benchlands west of Harvie Heights.

“We know that the south-facing slopes burn quite a bit faster and with the steep inclines that we have as well, it’s just a perfect, perfect storm for fire behaviour,” said Miller.

Miller said any work to create fireguards will take into consideration recommendations in the human-wildlife coexistence implementation and action plan, ensuring the co-benefit of both wildfire mitigation and habitat creation for wildlife.

“In addition, the evaluation and prioritization of fireguard locations will also consider climate change projection for the area, with an effort to mitigate the expected increase in wildfire risk to the region,” she said.

Gareth Thomson, executive director of the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley, said he hopes the fireguard initiative might give residents of Canmore and municipal district hamlets a higher level of safety and security when it comes to forest fires.

“It also has the potential to significantly improve habitat for a number of important species, including grizzly bears, with the potential to keep bears out of our towns and happily feeding in habitat enhancement areas external to the urban areas,” he said.

Public safety power shutoff a last resort

Banff National Park went to high fire danger on June 8, with the Calgary Forest Area (CFA), which includes Kananaskis Country and the Bow Valley outside Banff National Park, increasing to high with some pockets of very high to extreme.

 “Although some much needed precipitation fell in some areas of the CFA, it was very localized and only decreased the wildfire danger in the immediate area,” said Anastasia Drummond, a CFA fire information officer.

 “This week will bring more warm temperatures and dry conditions. The forecast is also calling for very strong winds. These conditions can help fuel fast moving wildfires.”

With another above average fire season predicted this summer, AltaLink is taking action to protect the Bow Valley from wildfire risk, with part of the company’s wildfire mitigation plan including a public safety power shutoff.

As a last resort, during extreme and dangerous weather conditions that can result in a catastrophic wildfire, AltaLink may proactively turn off the power until conditions are safe to turn it back on.

“Shutting the power off is not a decision we take lightly,” said Evan Mitchell, AltaLink’s vice president of system operations and asset investment planning, in a press release.

A wide range of factors would be assessed before executing a public safety power shutoff, including wind speeds, humidity levels, the presence of dry vegetation or other potential fuels in the area, and real-time observation on the ground.

AltaLink is working with local emergency services and community leaders to expand and enhance existing emergency response plans to ensure coordination and effective communication.

“We’ve seen the devastation that a wildfire can cause to communities and we want to do everything we can to prevent that from happening here,” said Banff fire chief Russ Geyer in a press release.

“Coordination during any emergency is key to keeping the community informed.”

AltaLink’s wildfire mitigation plan includes real-time analysis of weather conditions, increased inspections in high-risk fire areas, asset upgrades to strengthen its system and enhanced vegetation clearing practices to reduce potential contacts with transmission lines that could result in a wildfire.

Since wildfire conditions can change rapidly, there is no set timeline for a public safety power shutoff.

“A public safety power shutoff will end when the risk is eliminated. This can depend on a variety of factors, making it difficult to predict how long it will last,” said Mitchell. “We encourage everyone to update their emergency plans and supplies so that they are prepared in the event of an emergency.”

In 2023, Alberta experienced a record-breaking wildfire season, with more than 2.2 million hectares burned, the most in the province’s history, compared to the five-year average of 200,000 hectares.

There are currently 20 wildfires burning in Alberta, including carryovers from last year as of Wednesday (June 12). So far, 411 wildfires have been put out across the province, including 47 in the Calgary Forest Area, which includes the Bow Valley outside of Banff National Park and Kananaskis Country.

Canmore wildfire forum set for June 16

The Town of Canmore is hosting a Living with Wildfire: FireSmart forum at the Canmore Recreation Centre on Sunday, June 16 from 1-4 p.m.

This event brings together industry professionals and researchers from the Town of Canmore, Alberta Forestry, FireSmart, the University of Alberta, and more to help residents understand what it means to live with wildfire risk, and what they can do to limit that risk.

The event will also feature booths with local landscaping professionals, the Canmore Fire-Rescue team, and others who can walk residents through opportunities and options to FireSmart their home and work. Booths open at 1 p.m. Talks begin at 2:30 p.m.

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