The wildfire disaster that struck Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada in May 2016 destroyed more than 2,400 structures and created insured losses of more than $3.5 billion. The incident captured the hearts and minds of the media and citizens the world over, and all eyes were focused on how Canada was coping with one of the most destructive wildfires ever. To that end, Canada's Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) set out on a mission to investigate why some homes survived the fire while others were vulnerable to ignition.
According to Alan Westhaver, principal of ForestWise Environmental Consulting, Ltd., who reported on the investigation in his session at NFPA’s 2017 Conference & Expo in June, the root of the problem was home ignition by embers. This is not a new problem as post-fire data from other large wildfires (check out my post about CAL FIRE) have shown us that it’s not the big flames that engulf a house and burn it to the ground; it’s those tiny little embers flying through the air for a mile or more that land on homes and yards, and ignite all that is flammable in its path.
Westhaver explains that embers act very much like how snow falls. Hear his description of ember showers in this clip from my interview with him.
After listening to Westhaver's explanation you realize it makes sense, right? And yet, not only are people unaware of the kinds of activities that can help counteract the destruction that embers cause, but according to Westhaver, wildfire safety advocates are also not pushing this message hard enough.
Westhaver shared this and other lessons he and his colleagues learned from the Fort McMurray Fire. He even compared the data of this fire to two other large-scale fires in Canada: Slave Lake and Kelowna. Given the studies conducted by all three fires, Westhaver told his audience that they now have a better understanding of the cause of home ignition, home attribute and fire pathways, and he believes this information can (and does) help inform more effective approaches to wildfire risk mitigation.
As a firefighter, a public safety professional, a homeowner, planner, policymaker or municipal leader you'll want to hear the entire audio presentation, which provides the full scope of the investigation and lots more insight into the great work Canada continues to do around wildfire safety and preparedness. Once you've listened to it, let us know what you think.
Did you know that NFPA Conference & Expo attendees and NFPA members get full access to all the 2017 NFPA C&E education session audio & video files? Browse the full list of education sessions - with attached audio/video - here.