Jasper residents prepare for wildfire season

Some anxious residents in Jasper are ramping up preparations for a worst-case scenario heading into the wildfire season.

'Everybody I talk to is concerned ... everybody seems to be making a plan,' says homeowner

Some Jasper residents are preparing in case of a wildfire. (Wallis Snowdon/CBC)

Some anxious residents in Jasper are ramping up preparations for a worst-case scenario heading into the wildfire season.

Over the past few years, the surrounding forest has increasingly been ravaged by the mountain pine beetle, heightening fears that a mega-fire could overrun the tourist town.

"Everybody I talk to is concerned," said Patti Urie, a Jasper resident of 19 years. "Everybody seems to be making a plan and getting it together. I just think it needs to be done sooner rather than later. The fire danger's already at extreme so we need to make sure we're ready today."

Urie's certainly ready. The mother of three teens has packed bins full of photos and documents, stockpiled fuel and photographed her home and belongings.

A prescribed fire burning in Jasper National Park in this file photo. (Brian Amiro)

Gas tanks are kept full and everyone knows where to meet should they become separated without cell phone coverage.

"I'm just trying to be as prepared as possible. And I'm thinking in this headspace — what if, what do I need," said Urie, a real estate agent who also owns a tour company with her husband.

"I'm trying to learn as much as I can about what to do in the event so I'm ready and prepared and my family is safe."

John Ward, a resident of 33 years, is so concerned about how quickly fire could spread among the "dead red trees," he wrote a letter to Parks Canada urging officials to implement an open fire ban at Wapiti and Whistler campgrounds near the townsite.

"They're similar to a dried Christmas tree that you left on your front lawn till summer," Ward told CBC News Wednesday. "These trees obviously ignite in a moment."

He said there is no controlled fire break between the townsite and the campsites, and worries the road and river might not provide enough protection from flying embers.

Ward raised his concerns at a town forum on May 7 and asked Parks officials to reconsider implementing a ban throughout the season.

Smoke blocks the view of the Rocky Mountains in downtown Jasper on July 18, 2017. (CBC)

'Part of the cycle'

Two B.C. researchers recently warned that Jasper National Park is due for a catastrophic forest fire and questioned whether officials were sufficiently prepared. They insist they are.

Alan Fehr, Jasper's Field Unit Superintendent for Parks Canada, said he takes fire preparedness seriously. He said they're always planning for wildfires, thinning forests and developing fire guards.

But Parks Canada won't implement a ban because conditions don't warrant it, Fehr said. They look at the fire hazard level, the resources they have and the forecast — a fire ban is one of their many tools.

They take mountain pine beetles into account when changing their formula, Fehr said.

"We've got a lot of standing, dead trees, and because of that, we have adjusted how we're preparing for fires each summer."

It's "part of a cycle," he added.

"I think it's been heightened perhaps by climate change and the fire suppression that we've undertaken. But the forest is healthy and we do need to take precautions," Fehr said.

For Jasper Fire Chief Greg Van Tighem, fire risk is always top of mind and they've taken a more proactive approach over the last few years.

"Jasper is in a bit of a unique situation. More recently, with the pine beetle epidemic and the reason for that is the fact that pine beetle trees are more flammable and more volatile than healthy, green trees," he said.

"A potential fire could move quicker, and burn hotter and faster."

A sign showing the fire risk in Jasper National Park in this file photo. (CBC)

He wants people to be more conscious of what they're doing out in the woods.

"It's a concern in Jasper right now with the pine beetle and with the climate change we've been experiencing lately, but I don't think people need to panic," Van Tighem said. "I think people should carry on, be reasonable, and be safe."

Van Tighem said the fire department's plan involves forest field reduction work, reducing fuel load around the townsite, updating equipment, and training with surrounding departments and Parks Canada.

A 'multifaceted' plan

Van Tighem said there's a "multifaceted" plan in place to deal with residents and tourists if a wildfire were to happen.

But they can also do their part to help.

"We want the residents to be proactive. They have a role to play and a responsibility for themselves and their families," he said.

That includes public education on preparedness, a communication system, and making sure people know where the six assembly points are in town.

"The hope is that residents would self-evacuate without much input from the municipality, because we're going to be obviously dealing with potentially up to 20,000 tourists," Van Tighem said.

"I want residents to be part of the solution," he added. "Help us keep them safe, but we also have to keep our visitors safe too."

With files from Andrea Huncar and Kaylen Small