Some jobs can make it difficult to feel a sense of purpose, but helping others to protect their properties against wildfire in British Columbia’s high-risk Okanagan Valley is not one of them.
Just ask Brittany Seibert: as FireSmartTM Coordinator for the City of Penticton, her daily routine includes activities that may well save homes, neighbourhoods, and even human lives.
Seibert’s experience with wildfire began in 2008, when she took a summer job at the BC Wildfire Service’s Cariboo Fire Centre in the province’s rugged Central Interior. As a dispatcher, her role included assigning Initial Attack (IA) crews to put down fires in the centre’s area of responsibility, and soon she was fascinated by the tactics, strategies, and decision-making involved.
“I quickly fell in love with the world of wildfire,” she said in a recent interview on The Get FireSmart Podcast. “I just found it incredibly interesting, especially the operational side of things.”
In 2011, she left her dispatcher’s desk and moved to Hope, several hundred kilometres south in the Fraser Valley. There she joined an IA crew herself, working closer to the flames than ever before and, in the process, fleshing out her awareness of fire behaviour – and of wildfire resilience. Beginning in 2014, she then spent five summers at the elite Rapattack Base at Salmon Arm in the Southern Interior.
Equipped with so much experience, in 2019 she got on with Frontline Operations, a wildfire and forestry consultancy in nearby Vernon. After two years as a Local FireSmart Representative, she learned that the City of Penticton had an opening for a FireSmart Coordinator, which carries a broader set of responsibilities.
The stated qualifications for a FireSmart Coordinator include “knowledge [of] fire prevention, FireSmart, and emergency preparedness programs,” and of “fire and public safety education, fire service operation, and emergency management”. The overall role of this position is to “effectively deliver educational and outreach materials to a variety of audiences,” so it also requires the interpersonal skills necessary to discuss crucial – and often sensitive – subjects with colleagues, community representatives, and elected officials. Although most of these qualifications would seem to fall well within the wheelhouse of an experienced wildfire operator like Seibert, she recalls thinking that other applicants would have stronger CVs. Nonetheless, it was Seibert who got the call, and she joined the City of Penticton as its in-house FireSmart Coordinator in April 2021.
In this capacity, much of her role focuses on building capacity for prevention and mitigation, which are increasingly recognized as the most important weapons we have against wildfire. Battling flames on the ground is essential when a fire has broken out, but proactively helping homeowners and businesses to make their properties more resilient – in part by considering the safety and other needs of firefighters – can have enormous and widespread impacts.
As evidenced by recent years, wildfire is an inevitable reality of life in British Columbia. Forests and grasslands in places like the Okanagan can become literal tinder in hot, dry weather, and a single lightning strike is all it takes to get a fire started. Once that happens, embers driven by the wind can cause it to spread with astonishing speed, at which point firefighters are reduced to deciding where and how to limit the damage.
But accepting the inevitability of wildfire doesn’t mean throwing up your hands. Quite the contrary, there are plenty of ways to make a property more resilient, and it’s the FireSmart Coordinator’s job to synchronize the efforts of multiple stakeholders, from homeowners, neighbourhoods, and builders to fire departments, municipalities, and real estate developers.
The value of the role speaks for itself, serving as it does to reduce the likelihood of homes, neighbourhoods, or even entire communities being lost or heavily damaged by wildfire. As Seibert explained on the podcast, the precise activities of a FireSmart Coordinator vary according to local conditions and the resources available to address them, but one underlying requirement is always the same: think ahead.
Helping communities help themselves
The list of responsibilities focuses on making an impact, in particular by planning and organizing events that educate the public about the principles of FireSmart – what they are, what they mean in different contexts, how to implement them, etc. There is also heavy emphasis on improving long-term readiness by enlisting municipal institutions, getting community members involved, and working with builders and developers to integrate resilience into original construction or any subsequent renovations.
More than two dozen BC communities now have a dedicated FireSmart Coordinator, and since each faces a different set of challenges determined by such factors as weather, terrain, and distribution of population, each has to prioritize different aspects. Part of the job, therefore, consists of accurately evaluating the local situation. In Seibert’s case – working directly with a municipality and its fire department, doing so in a high-risk area, and having a three-person team reporting to her – she devotes considerable time and energy to facilitating delivery of the FireSmart program, in particular what she called “the education piece”.
“I really see myself as … that conduit of information working with residents,” she explained, “working with homeowners as to the steps they can be taking around their homes to reduce the risk of wildfire, working with industry stakeholders to help them understand how they can engage with the program.” She also notes that having her and her team attached directly to the Penticton Fire Department gives them instant credibility among residents and other stakeholders.
In late 2020, she and her team got a chance to “engage with builders and developers … teaching them about how to build FireSmart homes [and] more resilient neighbourhoods.” Another example Seibert cited was working with other City departments, “whether it’s through legislation or other ways that they can be engaged in the FireSmart program”, including efforts to ensure harmonious implementation of FireSmart practices alongside local building and fire codes.
For anyone interested in preventing loss or damage due to wildfire, there is no “downtime”: there is a fire season, when necessary actions become more urgent, and there is a preparation season, when educating the public about mitigation helps make sure that more and more homeowners and communities are ready for what comes next. The months leading up to fire season also afford an opportunity to ensure that when the time comes, all municipal employees know their respective responsibilities and have the knowledge and tools to carry them out.
Education is such an important tool because it builds the foundation
From Seibert’s perspective, awareness of the threat and curiosity about what to do and how to get involved are improving “somewhat”, but much of the general public is “still in a reactive state where I think we start asking more of those questions when we start seeing the fire on the hillside”. Accordingly, “my goal as the FireSmart Coordinator is eventually to get the program to a point where people are thinking about this” ahead of time “when they can be more effective when it comes to mitigation.”
“We’ve had a good response” from homeowners seeking assessments of their properties and neighbourhoods planning FireSmart events like cleanups, Seibert said. “People want to take the steps, they just don’t know where to start, and I think that’s where education is such an important tool because it builds the foundation.”
A big part of her approach is to make sure that when people make those decisions, they have all the information they need, so neighbourhood visits typically begin with “at least an hour” of education that opens residents’ eyes, especially the “realization of why homes burn down.”
“People always envision that it’s this massive wildfire, this big flame front that comes through and mows everything down, and actually, there’s tons of research and science showing” something very different. She and her team confirmed this when they visited the sites of several BC fires last summer, and “what we’re seeing is that these wildfires are often not actually reaching the home. It IS that ember transportation that is igniting these homes and it’s the combustibles around that home” that make it vulnerable.
Seibert’s office distributes these kinds of insights along several avenues, including information booths at commercial venues and high-profile events, as well as the Home Partners Program, which involves property assessments to identify hazards and show homeowners how to address them. She said that in her experience, assessing a property frequently reveals a mixed bag, but the great majority of hazards were relatively easy to remedy, and even basic awareness of those requiring some kind of retrofit to the home allows owners to plan the work into future renovations and/or maintenance.
The Neighbourhood Recognition Program is where FireSmart BC does some of its most important work, helping community members to work together for greater collective resilience against wildfire. It offers organizational, technical, and other tools to increase the extent and effectiveness of community participation, relying heavily on Neighbourhood Champions, typically residents with established relationships across the community.
As Seibert outlined during the podcast, these champions are crucial for maintaining cooperative efforts and getting community members to hold one another accountable, in particular by organizing regular initiatives that make the whole neighbourhood safer. FireSmart BC is always on the hunt for more Neighbourhood Champions, and as Seibert said during the podcast, getting involved is easy: just contact a Local FireSmart Representative.
For Seibert, “the great thing about FireSmart … is that it’s simple steps. It’s stuff that you can do tomorrow – there are things that are more long-term planning, such as retrofitting the home itself – but that doesn’t mean you can’t be clearing leaves out of your gutters … swapping out hazardous [plants] … moving that firewood … away from your home … Those are all things that you can do tomorrow and can make a significant difference in protecting your home.”
In fact, these and a few other simple tasks can be decisive. “One of the big things we’re starting to realize,” said Seibert, “is how much the first meter-and-a-half around a home – which is the non-combustible zone – is really one of the primary factors as to why homes burn down. It’s really about getting people to understand what really is going to protect their home, and I think FireSmart is just a really great way to provide that education and get people engaged and involved.”
A big part of that education effort relies on making relevant information easily accessible AND actionable for as many residents as possible, and here the FireSmart BC Plant Program, which works in partnership with garden centres, has enormous potential. This venture makes it easier for homeowners to select the right trees, shrubs, and other plants for their properties, especially in the non-combustible zone, including special tags that identify flame-resistant species. In concert with the FireSmart BC Landscaping Hub, this easy-to-use information can be invaluable in breaking a key fuel ladder that often causes homes to ignite.
The Plant Program was launched as a pilot in 2020 and is now being rolled out across the province. Seibert and her team have been reaching out to retailers in and around Penticton, enlisting participation that amounts not just to free publicity for these businesses, but also to virtually automatic improvements in wildfire resilience for the communities they serve.
This is the time of year when many homeowners are getting their yards ready for the warmer months ahead, and it’s not just about removing fallen leaves, branches, and other debris that can ignite. It’s also about making sure that if and when wildfire threatens your home, the vegetation surrounding it is an ally, not an enemy.
For more information on what you can do – today, tomorrow, or in the longer term – to keep your property safe, or to help others do the same by becoming a FireSmart Coordinator yourself – please check out the following links: