The lakeside town of Summerland has long been a trendsetter, hosting the Okanagan Valley’s first telephone and electricity connections, as well as British Columbia’s first college. These and other accomplishments of the early 1900s also have been accompanied, more recently, by the emergence of an increasingly respected local wine industry.
Now the town is blazing a new trail, with the Deer Ridge district being named the province’s 100th FireSmart Canada Recognized Neighbourhood.
A relatively new subdivision, Deer Ridge was first established in the mid-1990s, and a significant expansion has been taking place over the past few years. At the same time, however, another process has also been under way. In each of the years from 2016 to 2019, wildfires broke out in or near the immediate area, several of them easily visible from the neighbourhood, with smoke filling large parts of the valley.
The years 2018 and 2019 witnessed wildfires of an unprecedented scale, and one of those who led the fight against the flames was Brandy Maslowski, then serving as Operations Chief at the Emergency Operations Centre for the Regional District of Okanagan and Similkameen.
With firefighting experience stretching back to 1995, Maslowski was no rookie – but this episode hit home precisely because it was too close to home, convincing her that more had to be done to empower people by teaching them how to protect their communities. Not surprisingly, then, it was she, as Local FireSmart Representative for Summerland, who inspired Deer Ridge residents to secure their neighbourhood against the threat.
FireSmart Canada has developed a tried and tested system to help any neighbourhood gauge its situation, identify issues that need to be addressed, and organize an effective response. FireSmart BC has been introducing these resources to neighbourhoods across the province, and Deer Ridge’s situation made it a natural candidate to take the next step. Maslowski showed the way, helping complete a Community Assessment Report, an initial FireSmart Plan based on that Report, and a follow-up Plan for 2020. The uptake has been strong, with many residents not only following suggestions about their own properties, but also volunteering to help spread awareness among their neighbours, clear flammable debris, or otherwise advance the cause of wildfire resilience.
They too had seen the writing on the wall: it was just a matter of time before a wildfire threatened Deer Ridge, a dry, brushy landscape punctuated by stands of ponderosa pine. When approached to start hardening the neighbourhood’s defences, residents understood the threat and were willing to do something about it. And as it turned out, some of them also had long experience of fire in general and wildfire in particular.
Kerry Anderson was one of those who signed up for a leading role, that of FireSmart Neighbourhood Champion. A former Fire Research Scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, he has seen first-hand how quickly a wildfire can move, leaving very little time for any kind of effective response and demonstrating the value of preventive measures.
Brent Wisheart spent 33 years with the New Westminster Fire Department in BC’s Lower Mainland, so he too, had a solid understanding of the threat that he and his neighbours were facing. Having witnessed numerous wildfires since relocating to Deer Ridge in 2015, he was more than happy to join the Deer Ridge FireSmart Board and was particularly keen on the organization’s awareness activities.
Carl Peterson had already started following FireSmart principles for his own property, but after the “serious fire years” in 2017 and 2018, he concluded that “we all have to do something” in order to improve the community’s preparedness. “We all got excited about” gaining FireSmart Neighbourhood Recognition, he recalls. “We inspired other people in the neighbourhood to get involved.”
The effort began in the spring of 2019 with a campaign to clean up yard waste like branches and pine needles. Peterson and other residents with pickup trucks helped cart the dangerous debris to the local dump – “26 loads” in all. Thanks to this kind of hands-on effort and what Peterson describes as Maslowski’s “very enthusiastic support”, the FireSmart Canada Recognition status was granted before the end of the year.
This was something of a feat since recognition is not automatic. On the contrary, a neighbourhood must demonstrate that it has the necessary leadership and commitment to support itself. This includes the formation of a dedicated FireSmart Board and the drawing up of a FireSmart Neighbourhood Plan. The Board is then responsible for initiating, coordinating, and following up on measures aimed at implementing the Plan, as well as other steps designed to mitigating wildfire risk. Putting all this architecture in place can be a challenge, which is why the role of the Local FireSmart Representative can be so crucial to both practical preparations and official recognition.
Readiness demands commitments of time and energy, but the payoffs are more than worth the effort. The implementation of FireSmart practices can prevent property losses worth many millions of dollars, and there is no way to count the value of human lives that can be saved when a wildfire encounters a neighbourhood that has increased their wildfire resiliency. Even without the immediate threat of disaster, just knowing that preventive measures have been implemented can provide peace of mind for residents. The process of getting there helps to build the ultimate community spirit: the sense of shared interests and shared responsibility that encourages people to work together for the common good.
Only after official recognition as a FireSmart Recognized Neighbourhood took place did Maslowski and her colleagues learn that Deer Ridge had been the 100th neighbourhood in BC to gain that status. The milestone made the achievement even more fulfilling, giving them the sense that apart from having protected their own community, they also had set a positive example for people in other parts of the province.
As Anderson put it, “It feels exciting to be recognized as the 100th FireSmart Neighbourhood in British Columbia … We’ve got a very strong community, and through the FireSmart program we’ve really built up a real neighbourhood spirit.”
Wisheart was equally enthusiastic, describing the feeling as “great” “Anytime you can be … a milestone … it’s significant,” he said. As for being number 100 in particular, “the biggest thing it tells you is that there’s 99 other neighbourhoods that have achieved that objective … There’s thousands of neighbourhoods in BC and hopefully we’re at the beginning of a wave that’s gonna grow and develop into an entire FireSmart province.”
Is your neighbourhood already part of the wave? You can find out here, and if not, you can help get the process started by learning how to apply and/or contacting the Local FireSmart Representative(s) for your area.