Protecting Vulnerable Private Properties in High-Risk Wildfire Areas

With an increasing awareness of the dangers posed by wildfires in communities adjacent to the boreal forests, a group of concerned citizens of the City of Elliot Lake, beginning in 2015, started to take a proactive approach to increasing the resilience of their community to such events. One of the first steps undertaken was to enlist the help of the Provincial Liaison to help the community adapt the standards for fire resilience as laid out in the FireSmart program. The citizens created the Elliot Lake Lakeshore FireSmart Community (ELLFC) to help disseminate information about individual participatory actions that one can undertake in the FireSmart program. The group also received support from the provincial government, which made representatives from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry available to help lead education programs. As a community with many retirees, the ELLFC recognized the need to tailor their approach to the methods most relevant to demographics at hand, they group embraced a multimedia that was notably effective in galvanizing public support and participation. In addition to the benefits of an enhanced resilience to fires in the wildland-urban interface, this work has also been officially recognized by the FireSmart organization, which granted the City of Elliot Lake the honour of being Ontario’s first FireSmart Canada Community.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Neighbourhood initiatives are crucial for ensuring the safety of individuals and properties located within the wildland urban interface. This includes public education and development of a wildfire hazard reduction plan. Research by the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction and others show that when individual homeowners implement FireSmart practices, such as removing flammable vegetation and landscaping with fire resistant materials, they drastically increase their property’s resilience against the risk of wildfire damage. The responsibility and cost of implementing these recommendations, however, usually fall onto individual property owners. This can be challenging for vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, ill, and fragile, who may have limited capacity to contribute to FireSmart recommendation. The City of Elliot Lake, with a population of about 11,000, is located north of Lake Huron and 161 kilometres west of Sudbury Ontario. The city suffered an economic downturn in the late 1990s as a result of the decline and, ultimately, the disappearance of the mining community. Elliot Lake has reinvented itself as a community dedicated to retirement living, waterfront cottages and seasonal destinations. With the cooperation of the Ministry of Natural Resources, a subsequent Lakeshore community arose 20 minutes north of the city itself.

Identifying Actions

Elliot Lake and its adjacent Lakeshore community are surrounded by dense forests, including highly flammable coniferous stands. The new Lakeshore properties are at high risk of property damage if a fire were to occur, as they are also located at a distance from the city’s Fire Department. In 2015, after numerous fires on the waterfront and with media coverage of major wildfires across Canada, a group of concerned individuals from the Lakeshore community decided to begin implementing FireSmart recommendations to protect their properties. They also developed initiatives to encourage others to do the same. A group of property owners in the newly developed Elliot Lake, understanding the serious threat posed to their homes and cottages by wildfire, enlisted the help of their Provincial Liaison to become a FireSmart Community. The Liaison assessed the wildfire hazards around three new Lakeshore houses and designed a specialized wildfire hazard reduction plan. Together, they also established the Elliot Lake Lakeshore FireSmart Community (ELLFC), whose members include the previous President of the Elliot Lake Waterfront Owners Association (ELWOA). ELLFC’s main function is to educate waterfront owners on ways to protect their property by implementing FireSmart recommendations and practices. The ELWOA also deemed it important to bring the fire safety message not only to its members, but to all waterfront owners. Since Elliot Lake and its adjacent Lakeshore community are home to a high proportion of seniors, one of the many challenges that the ELLFC wanted to overcome was in assisting the elderly in “FireSmarting” their properties. Through advertising on the ELWOA website, newsletter and bulletin board, the ELLFC offered seniors an opportunity to request the help of the Ministry-trained volunteers on their property. By encouraging these volunteers to bring along friends who would in turn be trained on the job, the ELLFC ensures a sufficient supply of workers. These special accommodations for vulnerable populations are crucial for securing FireSmart safety at the community level.

Implementation

The ELLFC began publicizing FireSmart information in ELWOA newsletters, on its website, the Association bulletin board and presented the FireSmart program at the Association’s annual meetings. In addition, a fire safety section was added to the ELWOA website, and an ELLFC introductory letter, along with brochures, was added to the handout packages given to all new Waterfront property owners by the city. The ELLFC also held FireSmart Days, where representatives from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry were available to educate and train volunteers on FireSmart recommendations and practices. By educating waterfront property owners in best practices for the prevention of property damage from wildfires, the community’s overall resilience and level of preparedness increased significantly. The volunteers for vulnerable populations were able to apply best practices for clearing Zone 1 (up to 10 meters from structures) and Zone 2 (10-30 meters from structures). Volunteers found that projects like this function best as a “working beehive”, in which one trained volunteer can easily lead and guide a group of non-trained volunteers. Furthermore, volunteers found that two hours is a good time limit for any one session. They learned the importance of having work gloves, sturdy footwear, water, bug spray and sunscreen to protect themselves while completing the work; and they learned that simple garden tools, such as hand pruners, loppers and pruning saws were all that were needed to make a difference.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

In 2016, the City of Elliot Lake became the first community in Ontario to become a recognized FireSmart Canada Community, and they have continued to work on their wildfire resilience. With the Lakeshore community’s decision to establish the ELLFC and with its volunteer committee for vulnerable populations, the community is not only better prepared for wildfires but has also developed the necessary knowledge to implement risk reduction measures around private properties through the FireSmart program. When asked what advice the Lakeshore community would like to share with other communities interested in implementing similar local initiatives and creating a volunteer committee, Jo Anne Matheson, ELLFC volunteer and former President of ELWOA, said that “while enlisting the help of Partners in Protection and your Provincial FireSmart Liaison is an important first step, it is also about getting the community involved as a whole in your FireSmart initiatives, challenges and education.” She encourages communities looking for FireSmart solutions to apply for grants and/or awards such as the FireSmart Wildfire Community Preparedness Day award. The ELLFC was given this award in 2016, 2017, and 2019, which gave the Lakeshore community access to a FireSmart event box, including promotional materials, volunteer t-shirts and work gloves, in addition to a $500 grant for local projects

Resources


Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Neighbourhood initiatives are crucial for ensuring the safety of individuals and properties located within the wildland urban interface. This includes public education and development of a wildfire hazard reduction plan. Research by the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction and others show that when individual homeowners implement FireSmart practices, such as removing flammable vegetation and landscaping with fire resistant materials, they drastically increase their property’s resilience against the risk of wildfire damage. The responsibility and cost of implementing these recommendations, however, usually fall onto individual property owners. This can be challenging for vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, ill, and fragile, who may have limited capacity to contribute to FireSmart recommendation. The City of Elliot Lake, with a population of about 11,000, is located north of Lake Huron and 161 kilometres west of Sudbury Ontario. The city suffered an economic downturn in the late 1990s as a result of the decline and, ultimately, the disappearance of the mining community. Elliot Lake has reinvented itself as a community dedicated to retirement living, waterfront cottages and seasonal destinations. With the cooperation of the Ministry of Natural Resources, a subsequent Lakeshore community arose 20 minutes north of the city itself.

Identifying Actions

Elliot Lake and its adjacent Lakeshore community are surrounded by dense forests, including highly flammable coniferous stands. The new Lakeshore properties are at high risk of property damage if a fire were to occur, as they are also located at a distance from the city’s Fire Department. In 2015, after numerous fires on the waterfront and with media coverage of major wildfires across Canada, a group of concerned individuals from the Lakeshore community decided to begin implementing FireSmart recommendations to protect their properties. They also developed initiatives to encourage others to do the same. A group of property owners in the newly developed Elliot Lake, understanding the serious threat posed to their homes and cottages by wildfire, enlisted the help of their Provincial Liaison to become a FireSmart Community. The Liaison assessed the wildfire hazards around three new Lakeshore houses and designed a specialized wildfire hazard reduction plan. Together, they also established the Elliot Lake Lakeshore FireSmart Community (ELLFC), whose members include the previous President of the Elliot Lake Waterfront Owners Association (ELWOA). ELLFC’s main function is to educate waterfront owners on ways to protect their property by implementing FireSmart recommendations and practices. The ELWOA also deemed it important to bring the fire safety message not only to its members, but to all waterfront owners. Since Elliot Lake and its adjacent Lakeshore community are home to a high proportion of seniors, one of the many challenges that the ELLFC wanted to overcome was in assisting the elderly in “FireSmarting” their properties. Through advertising on the ELWOA website, newsletter and bulletin board, the ELLFC offered seniors an opportunity to request the help of the Ministry-trained volunteers on their property. By encouraging these volunteers to bring along friends who would in turn be trained on the job, the ELLFC ensures a sufficient supply of workers. These special accommodations for vulnerable populations are crucial for securing FireSmart safety at the community level.

Implementation

The ELLFC began publicizing FireSmart information in ELWOA newsletters, on its website, the Association bulletin board and presented the FireSmart program at the Association’s annual meetings. In addition, a fire safety section was added to the ELWOA website, and an ELLFC introductory letter, along with brochures, was added to the handout packages given to all new Waterfront property owners by the city. The ELLFC also held FireSmart Days, where representatives from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry were available to educate and train volunteers on FireSmart recommendations and practices. By educating waterfront property owners in best practices for the prevention of property damage from wildfires, the community’s overall resilience and level of preparedness increased significantly. The volunteers for vulnerable populations were able to apply best practices for clearing Zone 1 (up to 10 meters from structures) and Zone 2 (10-30 meters from structures). Volunteers found that projects like this function best as a “working beehive”, in which one trained volunteer can easily lead and guide a group of non-trained volunteers. Furthermore, volunteers found that two hours is a good time limit for any one session. They learned the importance of having work gloves, sturdy footwear, water, bug spray and sunscreen to protect themselves while completing the work; and they learned that simple garden tools, such as hand pruners, loppers and pruning saws were all that were needed to make a difference.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

In 2016, the City of Elliot Lake became the first community in Ontario to become a recognized FireSmart Canada Community, and they have continued to work on their wildfire resilience. With the Lakeshore community’s decision to establish the ELLFC and with its volunteer committee for vulnerable populations, the community is not only better prepared for wildfires but has also developed the necessary knowledge to implement risk reduction measures around private properties through the FireSmart program. When asked what advice the Lakeshore community would like to share with other communities interested in implementing similar local initiatives and creating a volunteer committee, Jo Anne Matheson, ELLFC volunteer and former President of ELWOA, said that “while enlisting the help of Partners in Protection and your Provincial FireSmart Liaison is an important first step, it is also about getting the community involved as a whole in your FireSmart initiatives, challenges and education.” She encourages communities looking for FireSmart solutions to apply for grants and/or awards such as the FireSmart Wildfire Community Preparedness Day award. The ELLFC was given this award in 2016, 2017, and 2019, which gave the Lakeshore community access to a FireSmart event box, including promotional materials, volunteer t-shirts and work gloves, in addition to a $500 grant for local projects

Resources