With 188 wildfires burning across the province as of Thursday afternoon, city officials are making sure their own emergency protocols are as airtight as possible.
The closest anything has come to Penticton by way of a major fire event this year was the Kaleden fire, burning around 6.5 hectares of the hillside and into the community, but previous to that the fire season had been off to a slow start.
Last Friday, wildfires came in scores across the province, with the tally peaking at 219 burning at one time, with fires burning a combined 100,011 hectares so far this year, as of around noon Thursday.
Penticton’s deputy fire chief Chris Forster said municipal officials and the Penticton Fire Department are reviewing the city’s emergency protocols to make sure it’s as close to airtight as it could possibly be if an emergency situation were to happen tomorrow.
“What if something happened a half hour from now? We’re wanting to make sure we’re not waiting for something to happen,” Forster said.
“That’s what we’re focusing on right now is saying, ‘Okay, how well would we be able to react, how well can we do, and let’s make sure we have everything in place to properly protect the citizens.’”
That includes planning potential operations of an emergency operations centre, as well as if a fire were to begin encroaching on city land.
“What if all of a sudden Campbell Mountain starts to go up significantly and starts creeping in on the houses, we have to evacuate the whole Penticton Avenue area and all toward the landfill or anything like that,” he said. “All of a sudden we have six, 800 people displaced. What do we do with them?”
Currently, the Penticton Community Centre gymnasium would be the primary emergency shelter, he said, adding that if that gets over crowded, the fire department would begin looking at other properties that have large, open spaces like gymnasiums, such as schools.
“We have to make sure we can co-ordinate with all the authorities — B.C. Ambulance, RCMP, forestry service, etc.,” he said. “We’re looking to make sure all our co-ordination is going to move smoothly when it does happen.”
The city has also been working to make the city a little more fireproof in the long term through the Union of B.C. Municipalities FireSmart program.
“We’ve actually got up on Spiller Road, there’s now the residents there have, and are forming their FireSmart group, and also up on Riddle Road,” Forster said.
“They’re just in the process of putting everything together to start getting assessments done and trying to FireSmart their homes.”
The program, launched in September 2015 by the UBCM, sends grants of up to $10,000 to help self-organizing communities that work to implement fire safety solutions to their properties.
Only one neighbourhood has actually completed the FireSmart program, so far, as the UBCM only provides one grant per city per year, and more are in the works, but Forster said the fire department is anxious to get the city encased by FireSmart neighbourhoods.
“Trees can always grow back, but the homes, of course, devastate people’s lives, and that’s what we try to avoid,” Forster said. “And that’s where the FireSmart program has developed, and it’s actually not just a program that someone has come up with, they’ve got science behind it.”
He pointed to pictures from major fires in communities, where entire subdivisions have been destroyed, save for one or two houses.
“You think, ‘Oh, well that was just a fluke, how their houses are still standing,’” he said, noting that likely those homes have taken the precautions to avoid catastrophe, like using non-flammable materials for houses’ exteriors and keeping flammable plants and foliage a distance from homes.
“That’s where the ambers come and they set the house on fire, but if they don’t get a chance, it’ll brush right over your house. And that’s the whole idea behind this FireSmart.”
Another program the city is looking at to keep the community safe in the long run is the provincial government’s wildland initiatives, which provide sizable grants for contracting proactive fire mitigation techniques in the areas surrounding the city.
“In the sense of thinning out trees, etc., so if, in fact, there’s a wildfire, it’s not this huge blazing there, it’s actually attainable where the firefighters have a lot easier manageability of putting the fire out,” he said.
The city started the process for its first wildland initiatives grant late last year, with expectations of starting work late this year or early next year.