Maybe it’s because we suffered a house fire in 1998. Or that we lived for 18 years on the edge of densely forested John Dean Park on Mt. Newton…
Or because I was part of a North Saanich Municipal Council that took proactive steps, through the use of Development Permits, to identify and designate lands and wooded areas of the municipality subject to interface wildfires, that I take so seriously this summer’s unusually dry weather, record-breaking temperatures and precedent-setting number of fires on Vancouver Island and across our province.
Following the devastating Kelowna fires of 2003, the Province developed a provincial coordination plan for Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) fires, as part of a larger Provincial Emergency Program and Regulations’ planning network. In North Saanich, the Council of the day realized that many areas of the municipality were at the same risk for devastating interface wild fires (fires that occur in wooded areas adjacent to housing and infrastructure development), that would not only threaten the natural environment but also endanger lives and destroy property, as seen so graphically in Kelowna.
A comprehensive bylaw based on provincial legislation (the Local Government Act [Parts 25 & 26] and Community Charter) to address this risk was subsequently adopted by Council that established requirements for development in designated wildfire hazard areas (siting, landscape, exterior design, form and finishes) and imposed restrictions on type and placement of trees, vegetation and accessory buildings. Many of these provisions were also based on FireSmart principles, a set of guidelines that many local governments try to follow.
As we know, the spring and summer of 2015 on Vancouver Island has produced precedent-setting drought conditions and high temperatures, resulting in water shortages and restrictions. This weather pattern has also forced bans on open burning, low flow warnings for rivers, streams and other water courses and resulted in serious wildfires on Vancouver Island that threaten communities. And it appears that the majority of current fires were most likely caused by human activity. As I write this entry, there are over 200 wildfires burning throughout British Columbia.
In Oak Bay, while it is an urban community with limited wild lands and forested areas, we have urban parkland that is largely natural habitat that interfaces with residential settlement. Anderson Hill and Uplands Park quickly come to mind as areas that could be at risk from an urban interface wildfire, particularly if the current drought continues into the fall. While Oak Bay’s Parks department does an excellent job of maintaining our local parks, wildfires are a real concern.
I recommend that Council may want to consider designing a development permitting process that regulates development in the context of Wildland Urban Interface fire prevention. Which leads me to the following questions:
- Does your local government have a plan to designate areas that are at risk for an urban interface wildfire?
- Are the appropriate planning tools in place to mitigate the effects of development in such high risk areas?
These are good questions for all municipalities and districts in the CRD. Local fire departments can also provide valuable information that addresses not only fire prevention but also emergency planning.
I encourage you to contact your municipality or regional district to find out more about Wildland Urban Interface fires and what your community is doing to address the potential hazards and risks of local wildfires.