Optimizing Operational Preparedness Before a Wildfire

As the threat from wildfire grows for communities located in the wildland-urban interface, beginning in 2016 the City of Penticton, British Columbia, has taken a leadership role in training, citizen participation, and the integration of geographic information systems in wildfire preparedness. The Okanagan Valley in the interior of British Columbia is no stranger to wildfires. The dry climate and abundance of flammable coniferous trees has led to many high-profile wildfire events in the area. The then-incoming fire chief recognized the need to streamline training and information services among local and provincial firefighting services as they often were required to work together but often had separate training and incident command systems. The symposium that Penticton hosted on firefighting services for wildfires was attended by firefighting professionals from across the province and also included attendees from other provinces and territories. This symposium, as sweepingly successful as it was, was but one feature in a multi-pronged approach to improve overall operational capacity. This was supported by the development of a WUI-fire pre-incident plan, and extensive mapping and data digitization effort, and the implementation of programs to get citizens involved in protecting their homes, properties, and communities from wildfire.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Operational preparedness is important when planning for hazards faced by communities, including wildland urban interface fires. Activities that contribute to developing operational capabilities, improving effective disaster response and reducing the vulnerability of community members are important when planning for wildfires. These activities can take various forms, including the development of standard operating procedures for response, training response personnel, and improving access to public information and communications systems. Penticton is a municipality of approximately 37,000 people located in the Okanagan valley in central British Columbia. The community was threatened by a wildfire this year and several other communities in the area, like Kelowna, have suffered wildfire losses. The City of Penticton is a popular tourist destination, and a wildfire could lead to a catastrophic economic impact on the community.

Identifying Actions

When asked what motivated the wildfire preparedness efforts he led in Penticton, Larry Watkinson, Penticton’s Fire Chief, responded that this is something he is truly passionate about. “During my career, I have been deployed to many communities that were highly affected by wildfires. As a fire chief, I want to be prepared for wildfire events in our community. The last thing I want is to be standing on my heels saying I’m sorry I wasn’t prepared as a fire chief,” said Chief Watkinson. He also recognized the social and economic impacts a severe wildfire could have on the community. In 2016, Chief Watkinson, along with some of his provincial counterparts, recognized that responding to wildfires in the province was requiring growing involvement of municipal firefighters and fire apparatus. While their efforts are instrumental in protecting structures, municipal firefighters were not equipped with the same training or experience as wildland firefighters. In an effort to optimize wildfire response capabilities, the City of Penticton, with the support of the province of British Columbia, B.C. Wildfire Service, and Office of the Fire Commissioner, planned a Wildfire Urban Interface (WUI) Training symposium for municipal firefighters across the province to provide educational material around topics such as wildfire behaviour and wildland urban interface firefighting operations. Two hundred firefighters from municipalities across British Columbia and the Yukon were trained in WUI firefighting at the symposium. The City of Penticton also increased operational preparedness at the local level by developing a wildland urban interface pre-incident plan. The pre-incident planning activities involved a detailed assessment and mapping of the community that took place over three years. Chief Watkinson also encouraged others to look at partnerships that could support the community’s preparedness efforts. Provincial partners and representatives from other professional agencies were instrumental in ensuring the success of the various initiatives that were developed by the City of Penticton.


When firefighters were not responding to incidents, they were dispatched in the community to gather key information such as variations in topography, the various fuel types present in all areas of the municipality, the location of water supply, potential safety zones, refuge areas, the type of roads and what size of vehicles they can handle, and the location of keys to open specific gates. The data collected was then handed to the City’s GIS team, who mapped the entire community with this information. These maps were uploaded into an app that can be easily accessible during an emergency to facilitate response logistics. Since Penticton is likely to rely on outside assistance if a wildfire was to occur, this information will allow all respondents to have access to the same high-quality information. Penticton has also implemented several programs to increase citizen participation in resilience actions. Homeowners are given the opportunity to have a professional visit their homes to go through a FireSmart risk assessment with them. The City will also be implementing a blue bin system, which involves dropping off large disposal containers in various areas of the community to allow property owners to dispose of their debris (e.g. pine needles, pine cones, other flammable debris located around the property). Finally, the municipality allows controlled burns on private properties through a permit process. More specifically, Penticton allows residents who have properties in the wildland urban interface to burn any debris that could be a fuel threat when a wildfire approaches the community. Before any fire takes place, properties are inspected by a firefighter to ensure the burn is limited to fuel threats and does not present any risk.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

The WUI-firefighting symposium was such a success that the British Columbia Fire Commissioner was invited to audit the program that was presented during the 2017 symposium with the hope of turning this training into a recognized provincial standard for the training of future municipal structural firefighters. Chief Watkinson and his team were then hired to create the official curriculum that would be used for structure defence at wildland fire incidents and the training material is now considered a provincial training standard. Based on this performance, the City of Penticton was chosen to host the third Wildfire Urban Interface Training Symposium in 2020 to train an additional 250 firefighters coming from 50 municipalities across the province.

Next Steps

The efforts we are putting into Wildfire preparedness and FireSmart initiatives has no defined end point as we strive to live more safely with our wildfire prone community. The work will always continue and at the heart of the program must be local collaboration, planning, and coordination with homeowners, and citizens to become more adaptable to a FireSmart community. In 2021 we are working towards developing a team of FireSmart workers will have tangible outcomes, utilizing FireSmart BC Home Ignition Zone Assessment Score cards to assess individual homes and then being able to actually mitigate the proposed actions for homeowners that are unable to complete the work or are over the age of 65. This team will also focus on mitigation operations on City owned properties adjacent to Private home owners so the City can showcase a wildfire mitigated property. The Team overall goal will be to complete work in the City of Penticton for wildland-urban interface risk reduction and mitigation for homeowners to become FireSmart.