Protecting communities from wildland fires
Where people and forests come together, fire is an issue. Wildland fire can threaten public safety and damage or destroy homes and other property. Community evacuation is sometimes required.
Forest fire in Terrace Bay, Ontario
Photo: Gary Gusol
As more people purchase recreational properties in forested areas or move into residential developments in forested areas, they are increasing their potential exposure to wildland fires. The effects of climate change may also lead to some increase in the incidence of fires experienced by communities in the future.
Firefighting activities are essential in protecting communities. At the same time, it is important for communities and homeowners to understand the dangers of wildland fires, how they can help prevent fires from starting and spreading, and what they can do to reduce the risk to their communities and homes.
The main risk factors
Many factors influence the risk of wildland fires occurring and the way they will behave.
- Ecological factors are the main influences, such as forest type, tree age, topography and weather.
- Human factors play a part in developed forest areas. For example, the risk of fire rises when forestry operations take place in dry conditions, and where logging roads give recreationists increased access to forested back country.
Awareness of all of these factors improves a community’s ability to reduce the fire risk around it, and to prepare for and recover from fires.
Forest management agencies have sophisticated tools for measuring ecological risk factors. These agencies are now also beginning to examine the social factors.
Public awareness programs such as FireSmart® are helping communities manage and reduce fire risk.
The FireSmart® manual and website provide homeowners, landscape planners and forest managers with advice on how to protect homes and communities located in forest areas. These resources also provide tools to help increase public safety, protect structures and reduce evacuation and firefighting costs.
Examples of the mitigation measures that communities and homeowners can take: minimizing and controlling vegetation growth around communities and residential property; and building residences and other structures with fire-resistant materials.
Understanding human attitudes to fire risk better
Vegetation management and fire-resistant home design and construction are vital for minimizing community vulnerability to wildland fire dangers. However, also of growing interest to fire protection agencies are the social, psychological and cultural factors that shape people’s understanding of fire hazards and their readiness to respond to the risks.
The Canadian Forest Service is collaborating with several research partners to assess the risk of wildland fires and their impacts on communities and non-timber values. The goal is to better understand:
- public perception of the risk
- public acceptance of fire management options
- the factors that influence community and household mitigation efforts
The insights gained from this research will help guide the development of policies and programs designed to enhance the efforts of communities and households to reduce fire risks.
Growing awareness of all the risk factors will also help authorities identify those communities at particular risk and assist them to become better prepared.