Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Steps your department can take to prevent and mitigate wildfires

By Kirk Hughes   

Features Training Week Canada wildfires canadian firefighter fire chief fire department firefighter training training wildfire

Worth the pound of cure

FireSmart Canada – Events promoting community clean-ups and wildfire prevention education are great ways to get the message out to residents. Photo: KIRK HUGHES

A dismal winter across most of Canada, void of snow and moisture, has heightened the fire risk across the country, with many experts predicting yet another active, long and devastating wildfire season.

As the fire service prepares for this threat, many departments are taking a tiered approached on not only how to respond to wildland incidents, but also how to mitigate or prevent them from taking hold in the first place. 

Often, we think of wildland fires as being relegated to the areas surrounded by forest or nestled in transition zones with thick vegetation and brush, but interestingly enough, the battleground has moved from the traditional threats associated with “forest fires”, to areas that, in the past, worried less about interface fires. That change has several factors associated with it, from urban sprawl, to drought conditions, right up to the prevalence of certain construction materials. Finding an innovative way to tackle protecting against the risk of wildfires is a challenge on its own, but preparation and prevention are two key ingredients that should be explored.

“Preparing for wildfire season” was often a phrase heard around fire halls or bases, usually around spring. These days, preparations are done year-round, and not just at fire halls, but more and more at the community level. The first tier of preparation must be focused on the individual resident, and what they can do to mitigate the danger to their property. The first resource that comes to mind is FireSmart Canada, a nationwide program designed to help Canadians increase their neighborhood resilience to wildfires. Using science-based programs, FireSmart has developed practical and effective tools to aid residents in assessing risk, not only for their homes, but for businesses, industries and communities alike. Their work is well thought out, focusing on simple tasks that make a notable difference, such as landscaping with resilient tree types, pruning and crowning of dead or dying branches and removing dry underbrush, reducing the fuel that allow wildfires to take hold and spread. When combined with individual properties and homes this fuel load reduction creates a “defensible space” free from flammable liquids (such as barbeque propane tanks), external fuel sources like campfire wood and patio furniture. This increases the distance from flames to structures – restricting radiant heat from setting nearby items on fire. These recommendations, including simple to use and access checklists and templates are available free of charge on their website at 

Creating a firebreak: Fire lines pre-positioned around the community can hamper the growth of wildfires.

Residents should also be encouraged to “be prepared” for wildfire emergencies, this includes reminders about evacuation plans and 72-hour kits. A resource often overlooked by residents are the provincial apps that report on new fire growth, potential risk and evolving smoke conditions. These can be found either on websites hosted by the provincial agency responsible for wildfire management, or on handy apps that can be linked to a cellular device with notifications and alerts. Technology is playing a stronger role in many areas of fire fighting, and especially in monitoring conditions that can exasperate wildfires. Having informed residents, particularly when wildfires are threatening communities, reduces anxiety and controls misinformation. 

If residents and neighbourhoods are the first tier in the wildfire preparation, then the second tier has to be communities. This must be a partnership between the municipality and the residents, often fueled by volunteers, to spearhead the initiative to make their town “resilient” to wildfire. Although there are lots of steps that can be completed to strengthen community defenses, some of the more obtainable often involve preparing and reinforcing existing fire breaks, ensuring water dugouts are accessible and maintained (some community volunteers will report water levels to local fire departments so that if there is a fire, they know that a certain dugout has adequate water supply) as well as complying with local regulations for burning. 

The municipality has a major role too, usually as it pertains to regulations and legislations, some revolving around burn permitting, right up to construction materials required, spaces between housing, and rural water supply. Most people relate a municipality’s role in wildfire prevention with the work completed by their local fire departments. Although obvious, this is often the most important link in the tier chain. Firefighters not only train for wildfires, but they also ensure their crews are properly equipped to handle these threats, while balancing the response capabilities with the prevention aspect of the job. If a department hasn’t thought about wildfire prevention in the past, perhaps it is time to reassess the role that can be played. Reducing fuel load is the most obvious step that can be taken, and if that reduction is done through pre-emptive burning, that role is best left to trained firefighters – plus, it does make for good training. Controlling a burn, and removing fuel loads around areas of higher risk, such as railroad tracks, campgrounds and trails, promotes regeneration of new vegetation by “greening” up the area while reducing a known hazard. Another role a municipality can play is to create “fire breaks” either by the creation of fire lines around a community, or the placement of natural barriers to stop the spread, such as the area around a roadway provided it is kept clear and clean. Depending on the wildfire risk a community can face, some other examples could include the pre-placement of water tanks, stockpiling of foam reserves or a more aggressive approach, maintaining adequate numbers of roof mounted sprinkler kits. 

Firefighter lighting a backburn: Reducing fuel loads near high-risk areas prevents wildfires from taking hold. Photo: KIRK HUGHES

A component that shouldn’t get overlooked, is that of education. It is a core component of the fire service to educate people on the dangers of fire, and surely, that includes wildfires. Residents should be taught about how wildfires may start, including such things as all-terrain vehicle safety in wooded areas, soaking and stirring campfires to make sure they are fully extinguished, right up to being smart about accumulating flammable materials beside structures and homes. Education doesn’t have to follow the traditional classroom or session format, with social media reach ensuring that everyone has equal access to the message. Still, posters and ads in local newspapers and town bulletins can’t be overlooked either for their effectiveness.

The risk of wildfires cannot be ignored, and with another potentially busy season on our hands, now is the perfect time to re-evaluate wildfire strategies, including the efforts being put into preparation and prevention. Involving residents, local government and the fire service in a proactive, tiered approach to wildfire mitigation strengthens our community’s resiliency while promoting a collective understanding of wildfire risks. By co-operating together, the impact of wildfires can be lessened. Keeping informed with local developments regarding wildland fires, with an eye on preparedness, coupled with some preventative measures to remove fuel loads, promote proactive measures and make some alterations to local regulations with an emphasis on fire smarting, then the ounce of prevention could certainly equal the pound of cure.

Kirk Hughes is the Director of Protective Services and the Fire Chief for the County of Vermilion River in Alberta. Kirk previously served in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as well as several fire services across Ontario, Manitoba, the N.W.T. and Alberta.

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