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Wildfire summer: Be FireSmart, and prepare for outages

Image of a wildfire burning near Lytton, B.C.
The hot, dry weather so far this summer has BC Wildfire Service workers and BC Hydro field staff 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

"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, Tara Fraser would like all BC Hydro employees – and the general public – to keep in mind in what is another devastating 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 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."

This summer, a B.C.-wide campfire ban is already in effect, and a state of emergency has been declared. Communities have been evacuated, and the village of Lytton was destroyed by wildfire in the wake of historic high temperatures in June. With little if any rain in the forecast, expect August 2021 to be one of the most perilous ever.

Officials are asking tourists to do their homework before travelling to areas affected by wildfires, and to stay up-to-date with current conditions if they're already in those regions. If an area is under evacuation order, neither residents nor tourists will be allowed in. If it's under evacuation alert, travellers can visit – but if that alert is upgraded, emergency services will not be able to help them, as the orders are intended to help those forced from their primary residence only.

Wildfires can also pose great risks to power lines in B.C., so be prepared for a power outage. And it's a good idea to always keep your car's gas tank – or battery – at least half full so you're prepared for evacuating an area. Power outages can also prevent fuel stations from pumping gas, which can throw an unexpected wrench in the plans of both residents and tourists of affected communities.

See below: 5 ways you can help prevent wildfires

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.

Image of a tweet posted by Mike Thomas
According to the BC Wildfire Service, as of the end of July, about 34% of the more than 1,100 wildfires reported in B.C. so far this year, were started by people, about 50% were caused by lightning, and the cause of the rest is unknown.

A fire expert is born, by accident

Over a decade and a half 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 training on how to make good decisions in the moment, you can get yourself into trouble."

Image of a FireSmart BC illustration showing sources of fuel for a wildfire
The FireSmart BC website serves up details on how to help protect your home from wildfires.

FireSmart principles can help protect structures from wildfire

Fraser is a big fan of FireSmart, a 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."

The FireSmart website is a wealth of great information, with step-by-step actions homeowners can take to help protect their homes, and a checklist to see how prepared they are.

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 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)