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My Take on Snow Lake - June 30, 2017

Emergency group urges Snow Lakers to prepare
One of the Town of Snow Lake's two emergency co-ordinators, Ron Scott.
One of the Town of Snow Lake's two emergency co-ordinators, Ron Scott.

Fifty or so people were on hand for an Emergency Preparedness session put on by the Town of Snow Lake at 11 a.m. May 31 in the Lawrie Marsh Community Hall.

Mayor Kim Stephen opened the session with an overview of the proceedings; then introduced the community’s emergency co-ordinators: Ron Scott and Dave Kendall. The mayor then handed the floor over to Mr. Scott.

Welcoming everyone to the presentation, Scott began by explaining that its purpose was to engage attendees as homeowners, neighbours and community members with information on the damaging effects of wildfires and the precautions that could be incorporated in mitigating some of its influence.

He called attention to several devastating fires over the past decade, in Kelowna, Great Slave Lake, and Fort McMurray. These were places where thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed and the fires contributed to economic losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars. He explained that living in the north, we have to be prepared and make our community as resistant to wildfire as we can and he hoped his presentation would help in accomplishing that goal.

Mr. Scott proceeded to give some of his background with the fire department and as the community’s co-emergency co-ordinator prior to delving further into the presentation. With the aid of a PowerPoint, he noted that those who have lived in Snow Lake and Leaf Rapids were aware of the very real threat that fire poses to northern communities. “This threat cannot be resolved with more firefighters and more equipment,” Scott pronounced, pointing to how quickly forces were overwhelmed in Fort McMurray last year. “In Snow Lake – with only one truck and 16 firefighters – we will be overwhelmed very quickly.” He said that there were, however, simple things that homeowners could do to make the firefighters' job easier and make their home more secure in the event of a large uncontrolled fire.

He brought up the acronym WUI or wildland-urban interface, which is defined as the area where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland. He said the town’s cottage subdivisions are a perfect example of WUI areas, adding that the biggest threat to development in these areas are firebrand, more commonly known as embers from active fires. He noted that many homes in Snow Lake are close to the forest and most are very close to each other. Observing that if one home caught fire, it is almost like a domino effect; as others in close proximity yield to the flames from the first and whole neighbourhoods are consumed. “This is what happened in Fort McMurray; so what can we do about it?” he asked rhetorically.

He explained the forest renewal process (grow/burn/regrowth) then pointed out that placing urban development within the confines of the forest – wooden homes, wooden sheds, wooden decks – provides fuel for the flames of renewal. Forests that haven’t seen a fire for 20-30 years, weather (hot/dry/windy) and topography can allow a fire to move quickly. Once it arrives on the outskirts of a community, the local fire department will be challenged and quickly overwhelmed by spot fires.

Scott painted a rather bleak but realistic picture of a fire’s ravage on an unprepared community; however, he stated that this isn’t how it has to be, if people took precautions beforehand. He showed a video of the fire in Fort McMurray taken from a vehicle during the evacuation, calling attention to the period when the flames in a forest abutting a subdivision, raged then ran out of fuel. When the forest was consumed, there was nothing left of the fire, but embers. They floated through the air – many died out, but some found brush, shrubbery and evergreen trees, and the fire was on again. Of course it wasn’t long before homes close to these sources of ignition became involved and one by one, they caught and burned. It wasn’t said, but everyone was likely thinking it … when several people make poor landscaping choices, a neighbourhood can burn because of it! It wasn’t so much the heat from the fire that burned the houses; it was embers landing on things that didn’t necessarily have to be where they were. “In order to protect our community, we have to break that cycle,” said Scott.

Noting that the number of catastrophic fires is on the upswing, the co-ordinator said that there wasn’t much we could do to prevent natural fires from starting in the forest; however, when they reach a developed area, there are many safeguards that can be put in place. “It’s not just a wildland fire that sweeps through a community and burns everyone’s house down,” said Scott. “It is the small things - the bushes; the dried deck, maybe a bunch of firewood next to someone’s house. All these little things that a firebrand or ember can get into, start a new fire, and then there goes your house.” He said if people can diminish the number of decks with debris on or under them, wooden shakes/shingles, shrubbery and evergreen/fir trees close to a house, wood piles next to the house, propane tanks, etc., it would go a long way to keep from overwhelming the community’s fire protection force.

He then talked about the FireSmart Canadian Recognition Program. It is a system for people who live in regions susceptible to wildfires. It teaches how to decrease the risk of losing homes and how to best protect person and property in the event of wildfire.

The co-ordinator explained that depending on how well the program goes over locally, the town could be recognized as a FireSmart Community and lower insurance rates could result. “The more you can do, the easier it is on us,” said Scott. “If you do nothing, we could be overwhelmed and lose it all. If you do even little things to reduce the fire hazard around your home or business, it reduces our workload and we may just save the community … but it has to start with individuals.”

Scott hopes to hold another presentation at some point in July and he and Kendall are actively recruiting Community FireSmart leaders.