Wildfires like the one that destroyed huge parts of Slave Lake this month have increased dramatically in recent decades and are only going to become more common, exposing other Canadian communities to similar threats, experts say.
Slave Lake and other communities in fire-prone areas rebuilding after forest fires could learn a lesson from Kelowna, B.C.
The Okanagan Valley city was devastated by a large wildfire in 2003. The Okanagan Mountain Park inferno charred 25,000 hectares of pine forest and consumed 239 homes. Once the embers were doused, Kelowna rebuilt — and rethought the way it prepares for fires.
"The fire has taught us that planning, having good plans in place, certainly make the job a lot easier," said Ron Mattiussi, Kelowna's city manager. But, he adds, "I can certainly respect the fact that in a wind-driven event — as in Kelowna — you really don't know how quickly those things can take hold."
Mattiussi was director of emergency operations during the 2003 fire.
"My advice to the people of Slave Lake is listen to the people [who've experienced it], start rebuilding and then go back and start very, very small with some localized emergency operations group. It doesn't take much," Mattiussi said.
Climate change spurring fires, professor says
The burn rate from forest fires in Canada has doubled in the last 40 years, to two million hectares a year from one million hectares.
"Our research suggests that this is due to human-caused climate change," said Mike Flannigan, professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta. Flannigan predicts the yearly burn rate will double again by the end of the century.
"In the future, our models suggest it's going to be warmer and largely drier, which means fuels will be drier so it will be easier for forest fires to start and spread," Flannigan said.
That makes the lessons learned by Kelowna in 2003 all the more important, Mattiussi said.
"You may not be able to stop the mountain burning that's heading towards your home, but you can protect your home and you can protect the area around it," he said.
One of the ways he recommends is by clearing yards and gutters of potential tinder, like pine needles. He also suggests cutting back trees so they aren't close to houses.
Changes to urban planning
Kelowna has also changed the way it plans new neighbourhoods. There are no more long cul-de-sacs. All streets must have multiple entrance and exit points. That allows evacuees to get out quickly and emergency fire services to get in.
The City of Kelowna also places a notice on the title of all new homes bought in wildfire areas called a covenant. It basically tells the owner what they have to do to keep their house safe from fire.
For any city in a fire zone there is a fine balance that needs to be maintained.
There is the "desire of people to live where they have views of this beautiful lake and the fact that it's a pine forest," Mattiussi said. "And at any point in time, on any given summer day, we could be in the middle of a wildfire."