British Columbia

This tiny town wants to make itself as fireproof as possible — but it can't do it alone

As communities like Hedley, B.C., work with a sense of urgency to protect themselves from wildfires, they are, to some degree, at the mercy of the province, which is responsible for cleaning up combustible material on Crown land. 

Steep treed slopes around Hedley, B.C., prone to 'extreme fire behaviour' — but town can't touch Crown land

The unincorporated community of Hedley, B.C., is surrounded by steep, treed slopes. A wildfire risk assessment report says the community's older, wood-framed buildings would be in danger if a fire spread through the village. (Ken Hoyle)

Ken Hoyle remembers checking the thermometer on the back deck of his home in Hedley, B.C., in late June last year, watching as the mercury rose to 46 C during the sweltering heat dome. 

The temperature on his deck was just a couple degrees shy of record-breaking temperatures in Lytton, B.C., which burned to the ground on June 30, 2021, when a wildfire ripped through it. 

"Obviously Lytton was a real wake-up in terms of the rapidity at which a fire could go through a community," said Hoyle, who heads the Hedley/Upper Similkameen Indian Band FireSmart community board.

The fiery destruction of Lytton sparked a rush to fireproof communities throughout B.C., where more than 1,600 fires burned nearly 8,700 square kilometres of land in 2021, making it the province's third worst wildfire season on record.

But as communities like Hedley work with a sense of urgency to protect themselves from wildfires, they are, to some degree, at the mercy of the province, which is responsible for cleaning up combustible material on Crown land. 

High fire risk zone

Hedley, a former mining town, is nestled between steep mountains, about 38 kilometres east of Princeton. 

The steep, treed slopes surrounding the unincorporated community are a significant contributor to its fire risk, according to Bruce Blackwell, the principal forestry consultant of B.A. Blackwell & Associates.

Blackwell's company assessed Hedley's fire risk in 2020 and determined that the village's location supports "higher levels of extreme fire behaviour."

Blackwell says a fire could result in large smoke columns showering embers onto the community, which is mostly made up of older, wood-framed buildings.

The province owns much of the land on the outskirts of the village — identified as areas of concern in Blackwell's report and by the FireSmart board.

Hedley is pictured in this photo taken from the Mascot gold mine site in August 2015. (Ken Hoyle)

The B.C. government allocates funds and resources to help clean up Crown land as part of its wildfire risk reduction program. But the clearing doesn't happen overnight. 

The Ministry of Forests said in a statement it plans to manage fuel sources on eight hectares of land to the north and east of Hedley. It said maps of the areas have been given to Indigenous communities nearby so they can provide input.

Once all the feedback is taken into account, the ministry said it will find a contractor to carry out the work, which may involve prescribed burning.

The province's goal is to finish the Hedley project by the end of 2024.

The province plans to manage fuel sources on eight hectares of land, circled here in red, on the outskirts of Hedley by 2024. (B.C. Ministry of Forests)

Hoyle says he's pleased to hear there's a timeline to get the work done, but he's hoping the village isn't affected by a wildfire between now and then.

"Whether it's going to happen in enough time, nobody knows."

Private property a concern, too

Apart from working with the province to reduce fuel sources on Crown land, Hoyle says the FireSmart board is working to educate residents on how to fireproof their homes. 

Hoyle says about 250 people live in Hedley, with an additional 100 or so people living on the Chuchuwayha Indian Reserve No. 2, a short drive from the village.

Hoyle, who has lived there for five years, says most community members are retired.

Fireproofing involves taking steps to make a home as fire-resistant as possible, according to FireSmart B.C. — a group of organizations working together to support wildfire preparedness, prevention and mitigation in the province.

This includes removing low-hanging branches and other debris that's easily ignited by sparks or embers and using non-combustible materials like clay, metal, concrete and asphalt to construct homes.

Hoyle says the FireSmart board hosted its first seminar back in March with B.C. Wildfire Service and the regional district, but only about 10 per cent of the village's residents came.

They've also tried to share resources through their social media pages, but Hoyle notes not everyone in the community uses social media, or has a computer or cellphone.

However, there are signs of progress. 

Hoyle says a community member recently passed a FireSmart program that allows her to assess people's homes so they can potentially get rebates for the work they're doing to fireproof their properties.

And at the end of May, the board will be hosting its fourth Boulevard Boost, an event that encourages residents to bring combustible materials to the front of their yards to be collected. They'll also have a wood chipper there to get rid of branches.

Hedley FireSmart volunteers work together to clean up combustible yard debris as part of last year's Boulevard Boost program. The village is hosting a similar event at the end of May. (Karen Cummings)

So far, five households have signed up, but Hoyle says he's hopeful they'll be able to convince more people to join in.

As for the province and its two-year timeline to reduce the fire risk in the slopes surrounding the community, Hoyle says he's relieved to know "they haven't forgotten us."

With files from Akshay Kulkarni