Municipal Land-Use Bylaws and FireSmart Provisions

In 2012, the Town of Swan Hills, Alberta, implemented municipal development bylaws based on the FireSmart principles to help reduce the town’s vulnerability to forest fires. This decision was informed by the town’s earlier experience with a near-miss from a forest fire in 1998. That year, a fire in the surrounding forest burned close enough to the town that a general evacuation was ordered. While ultimately Swan Hills was largely undamaged by this event, it nonetheless precipitated a greater awareness of the threat that wildfire posed to the town. Situated in the boreal forest belt of Northern Alberta, Swan Hills is surrounded mostly by coniferous forest, placing it in a high-risk zone for future wildfires. The effects of climate change will only exacerbate the existing problem, as evidence has demonstrated that the length of the fire season, as well as the likelihood and magnitude of forest fires, are all expected to increase. Swan Hills was a national leader in some aspects, as it is believed that it is the first community in Canada to enact a law stating that all new roofing must be comprised of fire-resistant materials, among other notable requirements.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Many communities include wildfire risk reduction measures in local development permit regulations that apply to new construction and they pursue a variety of approaches to inform and encourage action by existing property owners. A concern is that most existing property owners fail to act. The best outreach and awareness programs continue to result in some ongoing community vulnerability to fire. Wind can blow embers into the community and the embers may land on a vulnerable property, introducing fire into the community. This results in loss for existing homes that did not introduce protective measures and also increases the risk that fire will damage those that did invest in protection. Swan Hills has a population of 1,300 people and is located in Northern Alberta in Big Lakes County. While its location among boreal and sub-forests makes it home to unique flora and fauna, this also puts it in a very high wildfire risk zone. Being surrounded by older growth spruce and pine, there have been wildfires in the past. In 1998, the town was evacuated because of an encroaching fire. Although the fire did not enter the town, it came close enough that evacuation orders were activated. Knowledge of this threat prompted Council to add a FireSmart component to the land use by-law in 2012, to include requirements that all property owners must take simple cost-effective actions to reduce their risk of fire damage. The combined action by all property owners enhances the level of protection for the community.

Identifying Actions

The Town worked with experts from FireSmart to understand what would be involved in making a property safer and then it considered what would be reasonable to ask existing homeowners to do that would not be too onerous. For homeowners geared towards protection of their homes, risk reducing action involves reducing flammable vegetation and piling lumber, limiting these to at least 10 m away from structures. The 10-metre requirement is recommended by FireSmart experts. Also, in the by-law every resident is required to have a house number clearly displayed to facilitate fire response to the home. Other requirements include removing or replacing flammable fuel, trimming conifer limbs to two metres from ground level, restricting grasses to 10 cm or less, and adhering to roofing materials restrictions to promote fire-resistant shingles. All required landscaping must meet FireSmart standards. Through public hearings and other engagement efforts, the Town works with communities to educate property owners in hopes of effecting behaviour change. The public is made more aware of the FireSmart program, why it is important and what role property owners can play. Swan Hills works closely with provincial wildfire firefighters, engaging in, not only cross-training to learn techniques for dealing with wildland fires, but also in controlled burns in Swan Hills. The Town also works with the Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry with which it has a mutual aid agreement whereby reduction burns are conducted together. The Ministry also does educational sessions for the public. All of these actions support a wildfire mitigation strategy that the Town has been working on in conjunction with Agriculture and Forestry and with the help of FireSmart experts.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

Research published by the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction found that the 2012 by-law for Swan Hills was likely the first in Canada to require fire resilient roofing for all new and existing buildings in the community. The by-law was also the first to require all property owners undertake vegetation management within 10 metres of a building. This included requirements that flammable forest vegetation be removed, conifer limbs be removed to a minimum height of two metres, annual grasses be mowed to 10 cm or less and no combustible piles of firewood or lumber be allowed. These requirements have been in place for almost 30 years and serve to build community awareness that everyone can contribute to reducing the risk of loss from wildfire. The community moved beyond encouraging action to introduce public safety requirements, an approach that should be of interest to other communities concerned about property owners that are failing to act.