A recent one-day forum on fire and life safety challenges for rural communities in Canada revealed some interesting issues related to wildfire safety education and wildfire response. NFPA's Public Education Division is trying to learn more about the needs of rural fire departments across North America, and invited 30 participants from across Canada to help get the conversations started. In a pre-event survey, many respondents indicated that wildfires were among their concerns and challenges.
In seeking to learn from the participants, organizer Karen Berard-Reed wisely chose to open with a discussion of the benefits of living and working in rural communities. Many felt that the people and the open space and connection to nature (see photos above) were significant benefits of the rural environment. These two top items also connect to wildfire - the desire to live near open spaces and natural areas means that our communities also are at risk from periodic brush, grass or forest fires. And the people - well, we know that people cause the vast majority of wildfires, whether accidentally, intentionally, or as part of our infrastructure and lifestyles. But the people, of course, are the solution to wildfire problems as well.
A roundtable segment of the day allowed participants to choose which issue they wanted to discuss more in-depth with an NFPA staffer. In just two 20-minute sessions, I learned about challenges, concerns, and success stories from one end of Canada to the other. For example, a rural fire chief in Northern Ontario said his department does respond to grass fires, and cooperates with the national Ministry of Natural Resources on large fires, much the way local US fire departments are support for the lead response agencies such as the US Forest Service. However, he indicated that communication and command control has been a problem in the past. He also felt that because his region experienced large fires only sporadically, his staff struggled to maintain their training and skills. "We just don't do it often enough," he said. This concern was echoed by a Saskatchewan colleague, who cited grass fires as a major safety concern in his area.
Participants from western Canada, perhaps because their regions have seen larger and more frequent fires, cited buy-in from community members as a positive, allowing them to be proactive in planning with the community and supporting members in "work bees" (think clean-up days) as part of the FireSmart program. With the positives, however, came concerns because of the rural nature of the areas these fire departments protect. One participant from Barriere, 40 miles north of Kamloops, British Columbia, remembers the 2003 wildfires in Kelowna and the significant problems faced in spread-out rural areas of safely evacuating residents and businesses.
Several participants commented on the problems caused by trains along major rail routes sparking fires - a hazard across North America, but not one we tend to hear much about. According to comments in the roundtable, some rail companies are better than others in terms of communicating and working with local fire services. When rail service has had to be shut down for fire fighters to cope with numerous fire starts, it can have serious impacts on commerce. Participants also commented that water supply for firefighting can be a major concern in remote areas.
When I asked what NFPA could do for them around these challenges, the top answer was to get insurance companies more involved in wildfire mitigation. Fortunately, we are making some progress in this area thanks to relationships with US industry partners as well as the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction in Canada and the Cooperators, who support Wildfire Community Preparedness Day in Canada.
I'm looking forward to meeting 60 US counterparts of these friendly Canadian fire service folks at the Rural Fire & Life Safety Symposium here at NFPA headquarters on May 12 and 13. I hope to have more to take away to help my thinking about how NFPA and its partners can serve our rural fire departments better when it comes to wildfire safety, prevention, mitigation and response.
If you're involved with fire prevention and protection in a rural area, join our Rural Firefighters Connection on NFPA XChange. It's easy, it's free, and you can learn from your peers in a professional setting! It includes a calendar of upcoming events and resources such as PowerPoints, videos and more.