Conditions in the forests immediately surrounding West Kelowna are eerily similar to, or even worse, than in the lead-up to the destructive 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire that ripped through the Central Okanagan more than a decade ago.
And fire crews from the District of West Kelowna and the Westbank First Nation have spent much of the past several months working on a joint forest fire fuel management project to try and clean-up a portion of the Westside forests of dry, low-lying and dangerous fuels.
“We’re a month to six weeks ahead (of normal) in terms of spring conditions,” said West Kelowna fire chief Jason Brolund, as he toured a the 40 hectare project in the Westbank First Nations community forest close to homes in the Rose Valley area. “The science is suggesting it’s going to be an El Nino summer which is warmer and drier than normal. If you look back, the closest year to these same conditions is 2003.”
As crews worked nearby, burning debris piles in a project that will likely have to wrap up this weekend due to the increasingly dry conditions, Broland said the public needs to be extra cautious this year, cleaning up their own yards and avoiding things like throwing lit cigarette butts out their vehicle window or starting camp fires in dry areas.
“The entire boundary of West Kelowna, aside from lake-front, is located in an interface area,” said Broland. “When the fire hazard is this high it doesn’t take much.”
The $260,000 fuel management project is funded through the provincial government with West Kelowna and WFN kicking in some of its crews and equipment. Westbank First Nation is running the project, through one of its corporations: The Ntityix Development Corporation with a crew of between four and eight while West Kelowna paid-on-call firefighters are also on the crew.
The project includes removal of low lying tree-limbs and cleaning up of the forest floor, trying to eliminate the potential spread of a ground fire up into the trees, a situation crews in 2003 battled when the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire jumped from tree top to tree top and was completely out of control.
“It’s common in interface areas to have a lot of ladder fuels, where tree branches and limbs come close to the ground,” said Dave Gill, project manager for Ntityix Dev. Corp. “It wouldn’t take long for a fire to get from grass into the trees and once it’s in the canopy it’s very hard to fight and can move very quickly, depending on conditions.”
The project began in January of this year as crews pruned trees and thinned out ground materials, collecting them into over 1,000 piles of forest debris which are then burned on days when open burning is allowed, such as Thursday, allowing the smoke to properly dissipate and not have an effect on air quality.
Broland admitted there is much more work that has to be done in the area’s dry forests.
“This is really a drop in the bucket but we have to start somewhere,” he said, adding there is more provincial funding that has become available that West Kelowna will apply for. “This is the best way we have today to limit the impact of forest fires and to also make it easier to fight a fire if one breaks out.”
Broland urged the public to avoid throwing cigarette butts out their car window or starting fires and said there are many ways people can make their own yards fire safe.
For information on fire safety in your yard go to www.firesmartcanada.ca