Whitehorse 'at the edge of a blowtorch,' group says, urging more action to prevent wildfire

The city is 'no less risky' than Fort McMurray, Alta., or Paradise, Calif., according to David Loeks, who spoke to city council on Monday on behalf of 'Firesmart Whitehorse.'

'FireSmart Whitehorse' says the city needs to do more to reduce risk of catastrophe

Whitehorse needs to do more to prevent wildfires around the city, according to 'FireSmart Yukon,' an informal group that addressed city council on Monday. (Andreas Pohle/Yukon Wildland Fire Services)

A group concerned about wildfires around Whitehorse wants the city to do more to reduce the risk of a major disaster.

"FireSmart Whitehorse" is an informal group made up of firefighting professionals and other concerned citizens. On Monday, spokesperson David Loeks addressed Whitehorse city council to urge councillors to budget for better fuel abatement.

"Whitehorse is sitting at the edge of a blowtorch," he said, comparing the city with other areas — Fort McMurray, Alta., or Paradise, Calif. — that have been devastated by wildfires.

"Whitehorse is set up for a very, very similar sort of thing. It's no less risky than those communities."

The city spends between $150,000 and $200,000 on abatement each year. The city's latest capital budget, tabled earlier this month, sets aside $700,000 for fuel abatement over four years. 

Money is currently focused toward one project — building a 21-kilometre fire line, or firebreak, from Fish Lake to Cowley Lake quarry by expanding the nearby roadway to 50 metres wide, and removing surrounding fuels.  

"It might not prevent a fire from spreading, but it gives us a fighting chance," said Chris Green, deputy fire chief for Whitehorse, who agrees with Loeks's assessment of risk in Whitehorse.

The fire line is a priority because there's lots of fuel wood in the region and a dominant south wind — although Green acknowledges a wildfire could approach Whitehorse from any direction.

Chris Green, deputy fire chief for Whitehorse, says a fire line 'might not prevent a fire from spreading, but it gives us a fighting chance.' (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

"That's a lot of money to mitigate to something in the south, but it's still not enough — that's just one area," Green told council.

'We need to come together'

Green wants to see a committee formed with representatives from the Yukon government, First Nations, and other stakeholders, to prepare for a catastrophic wildfire and come up with a strategy.

"We need to come together and support each other," said Green.

Next spring, the city is planning a practice evacuation on the south end of the city involving partners such as Yukon Wildland Fire, and members of the community.

"We can put as many plans as we want into place, but we have to trial those," said Green.

The city is also now working on a 10-year plan for fire mitigation. 

Mayor Dan Curtis said in order for the city to properly reduce wildfire risk by "FireSmarting," it needs more help from the territorial or federal governments.

"I know it's not enough, it never will be enough," said Curtis.

CBC asked for an interview with Yukon Wildland Fire, but nobody was available.


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