Fire Chief Len MacCharles and his 72-hour evacuation kit that he recommends for all households in Nelson during fire season in case of an evacuation. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

VIDEO: Develop a personal wildfire plan, B.C. fire chief says

72-hour evacuation kit recommended

Len MacCharles wants you to develop a family evacuation plan and put together a 72-hour survival kit. He wants you to do it now.

“A wildfire impacting Nelson: it is not if, it’s when,” Nelson’s fire chief told last week’s Wildfire and Climate Change Conference. “It is highly likely. The impacts to health, property, the environment, people, is going to be pretty serious.”

It’s hard to predict what that fire will look like, he said.

“It would depend on the fire, the conditions, the circumstances, the wind. Was it a fire that started five kilometres from the city and making its way here? Or it is a lightning strike that struck very close?”

MacCharles was hired by city council several years ago partly because of his experience as head of emergency management in Calgary and as the incident commander at the wildfire that destroyed much of Slave Lake, Alberta, in 2013.

MacCharles said a reporter asked him at the time what it would take to put the Slave Lake fire out.

“My answer was, when this fire rolled into Slave Lake, if I had all the resources that I had in Calgary, which was 90 pieces of heavy apparatus and 1,400 fire fighters, if I had had all that in Slave Lake, a fire that was described as like a blow torch, I could not have stopped that fire.

“If a fire wants to come in to your community bad enough, it’s coming.”

The Fort MacMurray fire was not predictable, MacCharles said, because the fire danger rating was not very high at the time. But it was the perfect storm.

“It was the dryness, the wind, all those other circumstances. And the perfect storm is coming more and more often,” he said, referring to earlier conference sessions that had explained how climate change is gradually increasing temperatures and reducing summer precipitation across the Kootenays.

Several years ago, forest fire expert Bruce Blackwell told Nelson city council that Nelson was on his “top ten list of communities in B.C. for the next big fire.”

“That was not just an off-the-cuff remark,” MacCharles said. “He (Blackwell) has actually backed that up with studies and information. It is not just fearmongering.”

How has Nelson responded?

MacCharles said Nelson is developing a wildfire management plan, two main components of which are fuel treatment and the Fire Smart program.

Fuel treatment typically means working by hand, modifying forest vegetation by retaining large dominant trees, thinning and removing small trees, removing deadfall, pruning the lower parts of the retained trees, and burning everything removed.

MacCharles explained that the city and the Regional District of Central Kootenay have been doing fuel treatment work in the city and on crown land outside it, but it is expensive and time consuming and has received “mixed to poor” response and engagement from residents.

He said the FireSmart program, which provides a free professional assessment for property owners in what they could do to reduce fire danger, has had moderate uptake in Nelson and surrounding area but is improving. Owners of forested properties near the city are not compelled to do anything to reduce dangerous fuels, and MacCharles said he is hoping for more provincial government incentives for them.

He said residents become more motivated “when there is smoke on the horizon” but interest tends to drop off otherwise.

MacCharles gave conference participants a thorough list of firefighting challenges in Nelson including a list of critical infrastructure that will need protection, including water supply, hydro, wastewater treatment, communications, hospital, schools and airport. He also talked about evacuation.

“If you say ‘evacuation’ quickly, you can move on and say it’s OK, we got it, it’s all good. But it is a huge nightmare and even with planning and trained people, it is going to be chaotic. Nelson can have up to 20,000 people, (including visitors and rural people working in town) at any given time.

“It is not inconceivable to imagine a wildfire would affect at least one of the three transportation routes out of Nelson. So now you have 20,000 people in an evacuation, trying to get out of town, all on the same road.”

MacCharles also touched on recovery.

“The economics of a wildfire going into a place like Nelson is just off the charts. We are a community of small shops. Most small businesses can go 30 to 60 days without money coming in and going out before they go out of business. You start losing too many businesses, your employment hub drops off, there is a cascading effect. Tourism takes a long time to recover, and the social and mental health impact is huge and it takes years to recover.”

The contents of a 72-hour emergency ‘Grab ‘n’ Go Kit’ can be found on the RDCK website.

Related stories in the Nelson Star:

• Past Kootenay weather extremes will become new normal, scientist says

• FireSmart program an eye-opener for Nelson resident

• CBT funding Nelson $137K for wildfire mitigation

• Wildfire fuel treatment expands in Nelson area

• Action by Nelson area landowners key to wildfire safety, expert says

• Fire experts: Nelson could burn

• RDCK plans wildfire fuel action

• West Arm Park fire prevention plans move forward

• Column: Will West Kootenay forests survive?

• Fighting fire with fire

• More planned forest fires needed: wildfire expert



bill.metcalfe@nelsonstar.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

 

Len MacCharles speaking to the 215-person audience at the recent Wildfire and Climate Change Conference in Nelson. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Just Posted

Okanagan Wildfires: An afternoon update on wildfires and evacuations

A Sunday afternoon look at the major wildfires impacting the Okanagan and Similkameen.

VIDEO: Sailing under the sun at the BC Games

Maple Bay in the Cowichan Valley was host to dozens of athletes sailing on small prams to planing dinghys

BC Wildfire holding steady on Okanagan Complex

Evening update on Okanagan fire situation

Wild fires blaze in the Okanagan, in your words

We have compiled a community photo album of your wildfire photos

Power couple speed into top spot at L’Alpe de Grand Blanc at Big White

The professional riders have been training all year

BC Games: Day 3 wrap and closing ceremonies

The torch in the Cowichan Valley has been extinguished as Fort St. John gets ready to host the 2020 BC Winter Games

Police confirm girl, 8 others injured in Toronto shooting; shooter dead

Paramedics said many of the victims in Danforth, including a child, were rushed to trauma centres

Why do they do it? Coaches guide kids to wins, personal bests at the BC Games

Behind the 2,300 B.C. athletes are the 450 coaches who dedicate time to help train, compete

Reel Reviews: Floundering inferno

We quote Charlie Brown: “Good grief!”

UPDATE: Five taken to hospital following one of two Coquihalla accidents

One airlifted in critical condition, four taken via ambulance in stable condition

Ottawa fails to find alternative buyer for Trans Mountain pipeline by deadline

The feds had announced it was purchasing the $4.5 billion pipeline earlier this spring

Government sets full-time salary range for Justin Trudeau’s nanny

At its top range, the order works out to a rate of $21.79 per hour, assuming a 40-hour work week

Lower Mainland teams battle for baseball gold at BC Games

Vancouver Coastal squeaked out a 3-2 win against Fraser Valley

The Northern Secwepemc te Qelmucw people signed an agreement-in-principle with the B.C. government

The signing ceremony, at the Eliza Archie Memorial School, was 25 years in the making

Most Read