Wildfire Community Preparedness

Following a close call from a fire in 2015, in which the community of Enterprise, in Northwest Territories, was placed on alert, the community enacted a fire mitigation strategy in order to reduce the town’s vulnerability to the ever-present threat of wildfire. Located about halfway between the Alberta border and the shores of Great Slave Lake, Enterprise is deep within the Canadian Boreal Forest and is thus subject to the constant threat of wildfire. Enterprise’s new plan for community wildfire preparedness places a lot of emphasis on two aspects of such resilience: vegetation management and cross-training provided with support of the Territorial Government. The vegetation management takes multiple forms but can be described most simply as a means of reducing the amount of vegetation near the community that can act as a fuel for wildfire. This can take different forms depending on the context of the local area. For example, near roads and railways, where risk of a fire ignition can be high due to human actions such as the disposal of lit cigarettes, vegetation management means the removal of dead branches and other such easily-ignitable debris from the ground. Closes to homes and critical infrastructure, this may mean the removal of trees or branches that overhang buildings, perhaps even the creation of a fuel-break. This hard work has earned Enterprise the distinction of being the first community in the entire Northwest Territories to be officially recognized as a FireSmart community.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Enterprise is a small community of 120 residents located between Great Slave Lake and the Alberta border. While the Hamlet does not have a history of destructive wildfires, its close proximity to woodlands makes wildfires a constant threat. Community preparedness involving wildfire mitigation requires the joint effort of residents, property owners and multiple levels of government. FireSmart Canada guidelines for community protection can assist communities in reducing the risk of wildfire damage to property and firefighters in protecting homes. Its recommendation of a wildfire hazard assessment helps communities to determine which actions are needed. For instance, if both wildfire hazard level and risk are low, community planning may not be necessary; however, if both are high, both a Wildfire Preparedness Guide and Mitigation Strategy are suggested. Varying results for hazard level and risk call for different plans of action. Communities can form FireSmart Committees to help develop their plans and to work with volunteers to engage in risk reducing activities such as clean-ups. Community clean-ups involve the removal of potentially hazardous debris and fallen branches, dry grass and needles left on the ground. In addition to vegetation management, public education is an essential component of any FireSmart plan, through which residents learn about the threat of wildfire and how it can be mitigated

Identifying Actions

A wildfire in 2015 spread close to homes in Enterprise and resulted in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Government of Northwest Territories placing the community on alert status. This sparked an interest in understanding ways in which the community could become more proactive in preparing for similar events. The Fire Department learned about the assistance that FireSmart Canada had been offering communities. Two major aspects of Enterprise’s approach to wildfire community preparedness are vegetation management and public education. In 2017, a local FireSmart Committee was formed in order to carry out a wildfire hazard assessment and develop a community plan. FireSmart Canada recommends that this Committee be made up of a team lead, wildfire, structural protection and municipal planning specialists and municipal and provincial mapping specialists, who can carry out wildfire hazard and risk assessments and, in collaboration with other affected stakeholders, develop a community plan. The plan provides details on level of risk of ignition, suppression constraints and natural and structural features at risk, and recommends risk reducing strategies including fuel breaks and fuel treatment actions. One of the findings is that the risk of ignition is high in areas where roadways and railway lines are located, where human activity is usually higher and the chances of fire-causing activities such as roadside vehicular accidents and cigarette discarding are highest. A few challenges to fire suppression include the limited capacity of Enterprise’s Fire Department, which relies on volunteers, and potential limited water supply. In the absence of hydrants, water supply would be limited to a cistern at the fire hall and a burrow pit in the summer.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

In 2017, Enterprise was recognized by FireSmart Canada for its leadership in taking steps towards mitigating the risk of losses from wildfires. Though one of the smallest communities in the Northwest Territories, Enterprise was the first to receive official FireSmart status. The general response from residents has been encouraging and this is partly due to the fact that they are being educated about the program and engaged. The former Assistant Fire Chief was hopeful that with all the measures being taken, Enterprise would manage well if an event was to occur. Mr. Porter’s advice to other communities interested in successfully implementing a FireSmart Program is that community buy-in is very important, which can be attained through public education. “It’s also best for the municipality itself to be educated and then share this knowledge. I thought I had an idea what FireSmart was, but I didn’t. So, I think education is the biggest thing because people will not do something unless it’s relevant to them,” he stressed. He highlighted the fact that people need to first understand how they may be at risk to adverse impacts of wildfires. One way to accomplish this is by showing them different scenarios of what could happen. He also mentioned the importance of understanding that FireSmart is not a cure in and of itself, but is a strategy that requires a joint effort and commitment.