Architecture student develops easy-to-build shelters for wildfire evacuees

An architecture student is developing shelters for families displaced by Canadian wildfires.

'There's a problem with how we respond to Canadian wildfires. I really wanted to act upon that,' says student

Tinderbox Wildfire Shelter Kits provide wildfire evacuees with temporary shelters that can be built in a day, the designer says. (Tinderbox)

An architecture student is developing shelters for families displaced by Canadian wildfires.

Victoria McCartney came up with the concept for Tinderbox Wildfire Shelter Kits, which are easy-to-build shelters that communities in crisis can use as temporary homes.

The project could help reduce overcrowding in community shelters during natural disasters, said McCartney, a master's student at Carleton University in Ottawa.

"I noticed that there's a problem with how we respond to Canadian wildfires," she told CBC's Radio Active Tuesday.

"I really wanted to act upon that, and sort of create a response to that issue through architecture by introducing these shelters."

The modular flat pack shelter kits can be built by two adults in one day, said McCartney. 

When the shelter is no longer needed, it can be packed up, loaded onto a truck and moved to the next community that needs it.

McCartney is crowdfunding to raise money for a test model. She hopes to develop small prototypes over the next few months.

A temporary home away from home

More than 80,000 people were evacuated from Fort McMurray during the 2016 wildfire. Thousands of those people lived in community shelters while they waited to return home.

Crowded shelters can make a difficult situation worse, McCartney said.

Many Fort McMurray evacuees had a hard time finding a bed during the first days of the fire. Oilsands camps filled up quickly and community shelters were crammed.

"These environments often are overwhelming ... for families who are experiencing natural disasters," she said.

She added that minimal sanitation and cooking facilities are also drawbacks to housing evacuees in community shelters. "It can really cause heightened stress."

A little privacy can help reduce the stress associated with these spaces, McCartney said. Tinderbox would supply evacuees with furniture, power, a kitchenette, toilet and shower.

McCartney said the shelters could be used alongside community spaces as a means of making people as comfortable as possible in disaster situations.

"That way you can sort of expand how many people you can accommodate in a space without having the overcrowding," she said.

Finding a sense of normalcy during disaster

The shelters are made of interlocking pieces, so assembly wouldn't require power tools.

The estimated project cost for a unit that could house a family of four is $35,000, McCartney said.

She wants to make the shelter kits available to municipalities and the federal government, which could determine where and when to deploy the shelters.

Government subsidies for evacuees often don't cover the cost of missing a few weeks of work, she said. By having a safe and comfortable place to stay, McCartney hopes evacuees could keep working.

"By having these shelters, you're allowed to go back to work," she said. "You can leave, you can go, you can keep gaining an income for your family.

"Instead of putting your life on hold, it allows you to sort of continue with your family routine."

McCartney hopes to build a full-scale prototype by April 2018.

Listen to Radio Active with host Portia Clark, weekday afternoons on CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM/740 AM in Edmonton. Follow the show on Twitter: @CBCRadioActive.