By WENDY STUECK
Saturday, July 6, 2019
VANCOUVER -- In the summer, Kelowna's urban forestry supervisor Andrew Hunsberger often hears from residents worried about the fire risk posed by dead or dying trees near their properties.
Those worries are not unwarranted. In 2003, the Okanagan Mountain Park fire near the city destroyed more than 200 homes and forced the evacuation of nearly 30,000 people.
But when Mr. Hunsberger goes to check the problem, he often finds a home flanked by cedar hedges - which can act like torches in the event of a wildfire.
"Those two or three dead trees standing all alone, that's not the issue," Mr. Hunsberger says. "The issue is the cedar hedges and junipers next to the person's home."
When that happens, he takes the opportunity to promote safer landscaping options.
Mr. Hunsberger's impromptu tutorials are part of a bigger picture, in which local governments are trying to reduce wildfire risk and protect public safety. While efforts in British Columbia over the past decade have largely focused on fuel management - clearing and thinning forests in areas close to communities - attention is now shifting to a broader approach that uses development permits and planning to take into account everything from building materials to road designs.
That can result in tension between the push for urban growth and development - with its accompanying tax revenues, construction jobs and other benefits - and the risks of pushing further into forested lands.
"As development and populations grow in B.C., unless we manage this, we are creating a growing problem," says Bruce Blackwell, a long-time forestry consultant who has worked with communities around the province, including Kelowna, on wildfire management plans.
In nature, wildfires clean out dead limbs and fallen trees. Suppressing and controlling wildfires means that forests grow older, increasing the amount of available fuel. Homes and businesses built in the wildland-urban interface can provide more fuel.
In places such as Kelowna, residents value homes with views and space - which can mean subdivisions are built in areas identified as high risk.
Most of the low-risk land is on the valley bottom and is either already developed or restricted because it's in an agricultural land reserve, a zone protected for agriculture under provincial legislation, Mr. Hunsberger says.
That leaves the hillsides - and potentially greater wildfire risk.
Development permits are one tool local governments can use to balance those competing interests, says Glenn McGillivray, managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, a Toronto-based research institute backed by the insurance industry.
Local governments "have been using urban planning to manage flood risks for many decades now ... it's only right now that we are starting to apply those same principles to wildfires," Mr. McGillivray says.
In a 2018 report, the ICLR called development permits an "emerging policy instrument" for local governments to manage fire risk by, for example, requiring fire-retardant roofing and decks built with fire-resistant materials.
In Kelowna, Mr. Hunsberger says he's been pushing for setbacks and ring roads that provide more than one way in and out of a subdivision in the event of a fire.
Such issues are top of mind in the District of West Vancouver, where an Official Community Plan that passed in 2018 includes provisions for Cypress Village, a proposed community on a forested mountain slope close to Cypress Mountain, a local ski resort.
The proposal comes from British Pacific Properties Ltd., a privately-owned company that bought about 4,000 acres of land from the District of West Vancouver in 1931 and went on to build the Lions Gate Bridge, the Park Royal shopping mall and luxury single-family housing developments.
Now, the developer is pitching Cypress Village - still in the early planning stages - as a more compact community, based on a model in which the developer would give up some of its land for green space in exchange for greater density on the Cypress Village site. Much of the land between Cypress Mountain and Horseshoe Bay is currently zoned for residential development.
Details have yet to be worked out, but the idea would be that green space would be protected "in perpetuity," says Bryce Tupper, vice-president of planning and developer with BPP. "This is planning that is quite different than what the current British Properties are."
As it has for other neighbourhoods, the developer would prepare a wildland management plan for Cypress Village that would take into account things such as fuel hazards, building materials and accessibility for firefighting crews and equipment, he adds.
The District of West Vancouver requires wildland fire management plans for any developments above the Upper Levels highway, says Jim Bailey, the district's director of planning and development services.
West Vancouver plans to extend those principles into other neighbourhoods by creating development-permit areas for wildfire development. Such areas, once defined, might require developers or homeowners to use specific building materials or landscaping practices to reduce wildfire risk.
Some experts would like to see provincial governments take a greater role in managing, and potentially restricting, development in the wildland interface, rather than leaving such decisions up to local governments.
Mr. Blackwell, for example, says B.C. could look at changing its provincial building code to require certain materials in areas deemed high risk.
Since the B.C. fires in 2003, followed by significant fires in Slave Lake in 2011 and Fort McMurray in 2016, local governments - including those in Indigenous communities - have been grappling with fire-protection concerns.
A report commissioned by the B.C. government in the wake of the 2003 fire season recommended community wildfire-protection plans in communities in the interface zone. Those are still falling into place.
The North Coast Regional District, for example, recently issued a request for proposals for community wildfire-protection plans for four communities in Haida Gwaii, a group of islands off B.C.'s northwest coast.
Although all four communities require their own plan, the regional district says, "They desire the plans to be consistent and coordinated due to the proximity of the communities, hazard and vulnerabilities of mutual concern, and the strong likelihood that a major wildfire would require a co-ordinated, cross-jurisdictional emergency response."
The province, in response, cites a host of initiatives it is taking on the fire front, including $10-million in this year's budget for a prescribed burning program - deliberately set fires designed to reduce fuel load and fire risk - and $60-million for the Community Resiliency Investment Program.
That program, launched in 2018 as a replacement for the previous Strategic Wildfire Prevention Initiative, puts a renewed focus on FireSmart principles and gives communities more flexibility to develop measures that reflect communities' specific needs, the government says. Under the previous program, for example, provincial funding was available only for two-kilometre buffer zones around Crown land; the current program removes that restriction.
In B.C., FireSmart is a program built around seven "disciplines," including emergency planning, vegetation management and development considerations such as building codes.
More work is also being done to map and assess high-risk areas.
Lynn Johnston, a forest-fire research specialist with the Canadian Forest Service, recently mapped the wildland-urban interface in Canada, coming up with the first such national assessment.
It found Canada has 32.3-million hectares of wildland-urban interface - 3.8 per cent of national land area - and that 60 per cent of all cities and towns across the country had a "significant" amount of wildland-urban interface.
The map is a "jumping-off point" for future research, Ms.Johnston said, adding that such mapping can help to determine the areas that are most at risk, where they are now, or what areas are more likely to have really dramatic impacts.
"Currently we are spending about $1-billion on fire suppression every year. We are seeing up to a couple of thousand houses destroyed every year. When you look into the future with climate change, we are going to be seeing things like a doubling of area burned, more severe fires, fasterspreading fires," Ms. Johnston said.
"So there is going to be even more pressure on fire management agencies to be able to keep the public safe."
After recent wildfires in B.C., developers such as Bryce Tupper, the vice-president of planning and development with British Pacific Properties, are trying to protect green spaces in more compact developments.
JEFF VINNICK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL