Can it happen here? Preventing a catastrophic wildfire in Canada



    TORONTO, Feb. 11 /CNW/ - Marysville is no more. The town of 800 people
was destroyed by wildfire over the weekend, the deadliest fire in Australian
history. The recent trend of large, uncontrolled fires includes unprecedented
damage in the United States, Australia and a number of other countries. Will
Canada be next? Are we prepared for the risk of a catastrophic wildland fire?
    Leading fire experts from Canada, the United States and Australia
recently met to assess the challenges facing wildland fire management
agencies. The Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction hosted the 'Toronto
summit'. We explored the changing face of wildland fire, and the growing risk
of large, uncontrolled fire events.
    Fire is essential to maintain healthy forests and wildland ecosystems.
Indeed, the expert community believes that most areas need more small,
controlled fires to remove the dangerous build-up of fuels that increases the
risk that fires grow out of control.
    However, the public expects the immediate suppression of urban fires, and
often assumes that this is also the best way to manage wildland fires. Many,
for example, oppose prescribed burns, fires set by public officials with the
intention of reducing the risk of large, uncontrolled fire by eliminating
underbrush, blow down and forest litter.
    Wildfire experts seek to establish a new mind-set with greater public
awareness of fire risks and benefits.
    Canada, the United States and Australia have similar approaches to
wildland fire management. Until a few years ago this resulted in little loss
of life and only moderate property damage. The vast majority of wildland fires
- about 97 percent in Canada - have historically been contained to less than
200 hectares.
    But this has changed. California and Australia were among the first to
experience more fires that grew out of control. People are dead. Towns have
been lost. Thousands of homes are gone, with several fire losses exceeding a
billion dollars.
    A number of factors, including global warming, have increased the
presence of disease, insects and drought. This has increased the frequency and
potential severity of large wildland fires.
    In addition, more people and property are located in areas where
wildfires may strike. Indeed, one study estimates that more than 30 percent of
the United States' population now lives in the wildland-urban interface. Where
we choose to live and play is increasing the risk that fires will result in
fatalities, injuries and destruction of property.
    The remarkable effort of our courageous firefighters has limited the
losses that Canadians have experienced to date, yet fire experts are concerned
about the quality and quantity of equipment available to support this
important effort.
    Large recent fire losses in California, Australia and, to a lesser
extent, British Columbia, brought public attention, political direction and
increased funding for fire agencies. Nevertheless, significant funding for
wildfire management in the United States and Australia is not yet accompanied
by a well-defined, national wildland fire strategy.
    In contrast, Canada has an excellent national strategy but it is yet to
make the long-term investment required to realize our established objectives.
In 2005, the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers issued a wildland fire
strategy with a bold vision to make Canada's approach to wildland fire
management "among the most progressive in the world."
    Canada's strategy is built around three core elements: resilient
communities and an empowered public; healthy and productive forest ecosystems;
and, modern business practices. International experts agree that these are the
essential elements that must be addressed. The vision is sound, yet we remain
vulnerable.
    To help Canadians build resilient communities we have FireSmart, a
program with specific risk management advice for property owners and community
leaders. It was developed by Partners in Protection and endorsed by all the
major governments in Canada. FireSmart has been tested and proven, and now
requires sufficient funding to come into effect in communities at risk across
the country.
    FireSmart needs support from a social marketing campaign to encourage
property owners and community leaders to embrace their responsibility.
Managing the risk of large fires should be a shared responsibility that
includes fire agencies and property owners. This would include education about
the risks and benefits of fire.
    We also need healthy forests to prevent uncontrolled fire. The mountain
pine beetle, spruce budworm, poor forest management, and prolonged periods of
drought add to the risk of large fire. These perils need to be confronted
within a comprehensive and appropriately funded plan.
    Most importantly, our brave firefighters require the appropriate modern
tools and equipment so they can confidently protect us. Funds are urgently
needed to replace obsolete equipment. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire
Centre has been a remarkable success in sharing people and equipment across
the country, and demonstrates the capacity for co-operation between the
federal, provincial and territorial governments. However, the current
equipment urgently needs renewal.
    Canada is vulnerable to the risk of a large, uncontrolled wildland fire.
Horrific fire deaths in Australia and property damage in California are
warnings that action is needed now. Canada has a wildland fire strategy that
sets out our shared vision for how we can prepare for the growing risk of
catastrophic fires. It is important that we fund and aggressively implement
the strategy. Working together we can prevent fires from becoming disasters.





For further information:

For further information: Glenn McGillivray, Managing Director, ICLR at
(416) 364-8677 or gmcgillivray@iclr.org, or Brian Stocks, B.J. Stocks Wildfire
Investigations Ltd., (705) 759-1201 or brianstocks@sympatico.ca

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Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction

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