Stories & Features

BC Hydro Fire Marshal urges public to be 'FireSmart'

Firefighter next to a burning stand of trees
The hot, dry weather so far this summer has BC Wildfire Service workers and BC Hydro power line technicians busy. And while lightning strikes cause many fires, there are still far too many caused by people.

As fires rage through B.C., please consider what you're doing in the bush

Note: This story originally appeared in 2016 and has since been updated.

"FireSmart" is technically a strategy for protecting homes and other buildings from the devastation of wildfires. But generally speaking, it's what BC Hydro's Fire Marshal would like all BC Hydro employees – and the general public – to keep in mind in what is another hellish season of wildfires in B.C.

"I want people to know that anything can happen – we have to resist thinking that ‘It won't happen to me,'" says Tara Fraser."We have to be aware of how a fire can start and what we can do to prevent it – especially common things like cigarettes and campfires. Don't ever leave a campfire unattended. Don't toss a cigarette out the window."

"When you start a fire, you're putting people in danger, because people have to respond to those fires."

See below: 5 ways you can help prevent wildfires

Last year featured one of the earliest ever starts to the wildfire season and unprecedented destruction at Fort McMurray, Alberta. And we're off to another ugly start to the fire season in 2017, with nearly half the 550 fires ignited since April started in the past two weeks alone.

Campfire bans are now in effect across B.C., a state of emergency has been declared, and residents in several communities, including Ashcroft, have lost their homes to the fires. More than 14,000 people have been forced from their homes as about 200 fires are burning across the province.

The worst news? According to the BC Wildfire Service, of the 572 fires reported in B.C. so far this year, 258 were caused by people.

It's  a very busy time for Fraser, who as BC Hydro's Fire Marshal, advises on pretty much anything related to fires and BC Hydro.

A fire expert is born, by accident

Over a decade ago, Fraser knew no more than the rest of us about fires. Then she broke her arm while mountain biking on North Vancouver's Mount Fromme, was rescued by local fire fighters, and was so impressed with their work and camaraderie that she became a volunteer fire fighter in Surrey. She never looked back, and today finds herself as BC Hydro's leading authority on fire safety.

Her core duties involve helping develop policies, guidelines and standards for BC Hydro facilities and for employees, with a strong focus on fire safety and fire prevention.

"Anything creating a spark, such as grinding or cutting, can start a fire," she says."We have to ensure we're doing work in such a way that it doesn't start fires. But we also must ensure we have the appropriate response to keep people safe, evacuate when necessary, and to report any fires early."

WorkSafeBC demands that certain BC Hydro employees, especially those pruning or logging trees, get basic fire fighter training. But the focus for most employees and contractors is on planning and awareness.

A crew replacing poles on a power line going up and over a mountain, for example, would need to more carefully plan an escape route from dense bush in the event that a wildfire started nearby. In very dry conditions, that crew might be better off starting the work early in the morning, when lower temperatures and higher humidity limit the incidence of new fires. And they might carefully position their truck for an easier escape should a wildfire run into the area.

"Once those fires start, they can grow so fast," says Fraser."Unless you have that training about how to make good decisions in the moment, you can really get yourself into trouble."

FireSmart principles can help protect structures from wildfire

Fraser is a big fan of FireSmart, a nation-wide program that focuses in part on creating buffer zones – and some cases, sprinkler systems – around homes, cabins, communities and industrial sites.

"Communities have to have fire protection plans," says Fraser."Areas where you have a community that borders on forested or grasslands, there has to be a plan on how to mitigate risks of both a fire starting in the community and extending beyond it, or a wildfire actually impacting the community."

Various BC Hydro facilities in the province are looking at implementing FireSmart principles , especially in areas which are highly prone to wildfires. For example, one current BC Hydro project in an off-the-grid First Nations community is considering establishing a large fire break between the pine beetle kill forest and the diesel generating station that serves the community.

As BC Hydro crews head into the wilderness this summer, they'll often take extra precautions to ensure they don't start fires. One transmission manager recalls a crew doing work on a power line being accompanied by a dump truck loaded with water.

"The truck would be on the right of way before we got in there, and the contractor's job was to water the area where the equipment was sitting and the work was being done," says Steve Fowles, transmission services manager."So that's what we'll be up against this summer."

Five ways you can help prevent wildfires:

  • Always obey campfire bans. And when campfires are allowed, never leave a campfire unattended
  • Never discard cigarettes/matches into vegetation (including bark mulch)
  • Be aware of fire activity in the area and observe all activity restrictions and campfire bans
  • Create fuel-free or low-combustible zones around your house (for example, never store wood piles beside a building)
  • Immediately report wildfires to the BC Wildfire Service or your local fire department (911)