As the fall out is being assessed from this year’s major wildland fires on the U.S. west coast and in the Canadian context, the most costly disaster in Canadian history “the Fort McMurray Fire” risk assessors and public policy analysts are re-considering our planning and preparedness models. Wildfire incidents in North America are increasing in frequency and raising more and more public concern with regard to the wildland-urban interface. Across Canada, between forest management, human, accidental and natural causes, 2.5 Million Hectares of land are burned annually (Wotton et al. 2010). While most fires are successfully controlled, 97% of the area burned, is the result of less than 3% of the total fires (Wotton et al. 2010). Statistics show that between 2002 and 2011, insurance costs in the United States related to wildfires increased $6.2 billion in comparison to the previous decade (Calkin et al. 2013). The return on investment regarding urban wildfires affecting critical infrastructure, forest resources, tourism, industrial operations, workforce availability, recreation and health costs should provide a foundation for fire management spending decisions (Rittmaster et al. 2006). Recognizing that mitigation strategies will need to plan for an even greater number of wildfires in the future, now is the time for decision-making based on appropriate forestry and fire management strategies, current and future land use, and community engagement.
Many existing North American communities have been developed near high-risk zones such as flood prone or fire susceptible areas. The growing reality facing first responders and community planners is that the area burned in North America, is estimated to more than double by the end of the 21st century (Wotten et al. 2010). Emergency Solutions International (ESI) conducted a risk assessment in Newfoundland & Labrador, Canada, where forest fires were historically rare. Now with a changing climate, community managers have found they need to evaluate their community design and public awareness strategies. In Labrador, it was concluded that planners will need to adapt secondary methods of egress, forest boundaries and distances for evacuation due to increasing pressure from forest fires. The evolving challenge is that warmer temperatures cause more evaporation, lower water tables, decreased soil moisture content and shifting norms regarding weather patterns and ecosystem structure (Wotten et al. 2010). In the case of Labrador, Spruce Budworm infestation that at one time, had been held at bay through cold winters, is now creating dead trees and higher fire-load. Generally, fire seasons in North America are increasing in length, number of fires, the amount of area burned, and the severity of damage, putting pressure on municipal planners and emergency responders to better prepare for and mitigate the overwhelming risk of wildfires affecting communities. (Wotten et al. 2010). Multiple simultaneous wildfires across several municipal jurisdictions stretch the resources available to first responders and challenge the organizational and interoperability structures of adjacent communities. Engaging the community regarding the risk of wildfires in their area can promote a united approach to prevention and mitigation of risk (Kline et al. 2015). Communities facing the growing risk of severe wildfires can adapt their efforts to form a more resilient response.
Cascading failures present additional challenges and increased pressure on response agencies. As an example, during a risk assessment ESI recognized the cascading risks associated with a high impact electrical substation, which was built within a thickly forested area. Not only could the electrical supply to thousands of homes be affected by the loss of this critical substation as a result of a forest fire, but that particular substation was also a critical part of the system that provided support to the community water supply. Public planners are now looking at interdependencies between critical systems and analyzing whether they are robust enough to weather events like a major wildfire at the perimeter of a city similar to Fort McMurray, Alberta. Clearly insurance companies will be re-assessing risk as well.
As a Fire Chief I was always concerned about ribbon development within the community. In rural areas for instance, there is a propensity to create “dead-end” streets without turning circles. This seemingly small decision was something that created dangerous situations for fire-fighters. In our case we were diligent that as streets reached 80-90 meters we would look at creating a second means of ingress/egress or at minimum, a turnaround area to accommodate our largest piece of apparatus.
Clearly North American cities near rural areas are facing an emerging threat that will increase in the coming decades. Difficult decisions will have to be made by community planners in relation to approval for rural dwellings and the designation of wide un-forested buffer areas. Community managers and identified stakeholders within the municipality, even non-traditional ones like agricultural and woodlot owners must be engaged to work with technical advisors from government natural resources and environmental departments, insurance companies, critical infrastructure and industry advisors to study and reduce the risk that wildfires present to their communities.
Caulkin, D., Cohen, J., Finney, M. and Thompson, M. 2013. How risk management can prevent future wildfire disasters in the wildland-urban interface. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 111(2):746-751.
Kline, J., Ager, A., and Fisher, A. 2015. A Conceptual Framework for Coupling the Biophysical and Social Dimensions of Wildfire to Improve Fireshed Planning and Risk Mitigation. International Journal on Woodland Fire, 204-212.
Rittmaster, R. Adamowicz, W.L., Amiro, B. and Pelliter, R.T. 2006. Economic Analysis of Health Effects from Forest Fires. Canadian Journal of Forest Research. 36: 868-877.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police. 2016. Digital Image. Retrieved from http://globalnews.ca/news/2681819/fort-mcmurray-wildfire-unpredictable-weather-forces-evacuees-out-of-nearby-anzac/ September 26th, 2016.
Wotten, B.M., Nick, C.A., and Flannigan, M.D. 2010. Forest Fire Occurrence and Climate Change in Canada. International Journal of Wildland Fire. 19: 253-271.