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Alberni Valley firefighters take part in FireSmart training with BC Wildfire Service

Training is just one of the tool to create a wildfire resilient community

Back in March, firefighters from departments across the Alberni Valley gathered at the Fall Fair Grounds for a new kind of training.

Firefighters strung temporary sprinklers up and around buildings, using small pumps, pools, hydrants and hoses to create a “humidity bubble” that will protect the structures in case of a nearby wildfire.

The training was part of the Structure Protection Program put on by the province through their FireSmart grant. Instructors from the BC Wildfire Service were on hand to show firefighters the best ways to stop structures from catching fire when wildfire approaches.

“This is one of the tools fire departments have in terms of dealing with wildfires,” explained Randy Thoen, FireSmart coordinator for the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District.

Wildfires have become more of a concern in the regional district over the past few years, compounded by the Cameron Bluffs wildfire of summer 2023 and this year’s historically low snowpack, which is raising concerns about drought across the province.

“It’s been a compounding effect going back to about 2021, with the heat dome that happened that summer,” said Thoen. “On top of that, our shoulder seasons have not really existed.”

A shoulder season is the period of time between peak wildfire seasons. This year, the ACRD saw a relatively dry fall, followed by freezing in December.

“Because of that, there is a concern about wildfire in our area,” Thoen added. “It’s a little bit different here as opposed to in the interior [of British Columbia]. Our fires don’t get as large because we are so wet. But the majority of our structures are intermixed with forest, so even a small fire could affect houses or the community.”

A fire department’s challenge is to create buffers between the buildings and the brush, and to dampen flammable materials around structures so that fire is less likely to spread. This was the goal behind the Structure Protection Program Training, which had 25 firefighters in attendance from the Port Alberni Fire Department, as well as the Beaver Creek, Cherry Creek and Sproat Lake Volunteer Fire Departments. The training included one day of theory in the classroom, followed by one day of practical training at the Fall Fair Grounds.

Thoen says the regional district plans to host Engine Boss training next, which will teach firefighters how to be task force leaders by coordinating pumpers and water supply. This will either take place in the fall or next spring, depending how long this year’s wildfire season lasts.

Partnering with First Nations

The ACRD was able to put on this training with the help of a provincial FireSmart grant. This is the third time in a row that the ACRD was successful in receiving a grant, thanks to a partnership with the City of Port Alberni, Hupacasath and Tseshaht First Nations.

The ACRD is one of the few local governments across B.C. to partner with local First Nations on the FireSmart grant application. It’s because of this that Thoen and Kaitlin Minvielle, the emergency program coordinator with Tseshaht First Nation, have been invited to speak at the FireSmart Conference at the Wildfire Training Summit in Prince George from April 20-24.

“We’re going to speak about the partnership and how it’s working,” said Thoen. “That’s a pretty big deal for us.”

The partnership was “a natural fit,” said Thoen, and also allows for increased funding from the province.

“Regionally speaking, we’re all in each other’s backyards,” he said. “They take part in all of our events, they receive medical response and fire response from the city. The partnership is great because it allows us to provide programming to all areas.” he added. A FireSmart rebate, for example, is available across the Alberni Valley.

Minvielle agrees that the partnership made sense for Tseshaht First Nation. Over the past few years, the FireSmart funding has allowed for assessments of homes and critical infrastructure on the nation’s reserve, including the administration building and Haahuupayak School.

“Things are heating up more and more these days,” said Minvielle. “We have a particular kind of fuel here that the Interior doesn’t have, so we’re taking proactive steps to ensure that the community remains safe from wildfires. Crews have been able to do some clearing around homes, and we’re hoping to arrange for some curbside pickup.”

Minvielle says the nation is also looking at some youth initiatives to get youth involved in FireSmart activities.

Thoen says part of the reason that he and Minvielle have been invited to speak at the conference is also because the Cameron Bluffs wildfire has put a lot of focus on the region.

“We’ve had wildfires here previously,” said Thoen. “But previously our extreme fire danger season was only a couple of weeks long. Now, with our extended summers and short winters, that’s changed for us.”

“We’ll talk about what we’ve done in the past, and where we’re hoping to go,” Minvielle said. “Other First Nations representatives will be there, so it will give them a view of how that might look for them to partner with another municipality, as well.”

What residents can do

The FireSmart grant also means that residential home assessments are available free of charge for homeowners across the Alberni Valley. These assessments are free, confidential and entirely voluntary—meaning homeowners are not required to adopt any of the suggested mitigation techniques. So far, Thoen says the ACRD is at about 145 percent of what they had targeted for home assessments.

“We’ll make recommendations on things you can do to build fire resiliency on your property,” said Thoen. “We know there are reasons certain buildings survive and others fail in a wildfire situation. The most critical areas are the roofs, gutters, eaves and the perimeter around the house.”

The ACRD also offers a rebate of up to $1,000 to help pay for that work, and curbside pickup is available for yard waste.

Thoen says the best techniques to protect your property from wildfire are pruning, raking, cleaning the roof and gutters and relocating firewood storage in the summer.

“Our biggest challenge is that we really like small shrubs and bushes right around our house,” Thoen laughed. He described these conifers as “vertical gasoline” for wildfire. “We can change a lot of things by changing our habits and our behaviour.”

There are ways that homeowners can landscape with plants that are more resistant to fire. FireSmart B.C. has a Landscaping Hub online at that can help residents find fire-resistant plants for their particular climate and increase the wildfire resiliency of their properties.

Residents can also contact Thoen at 250-720-2700 or to set up a free home assessment.

Thoen will be hosting a couple of drop-in discussion events at the Echo Centre, where Alberni Valley residents can learn how to build wildfire resilience into their properties and reduce the risk of interface fire with some simple FireSmart principles. The events take place Thursday, May 23 and Tuesday, June 4 from 5-7 p.m. in the Cedar Room.

Elena Rardon

About the Author: Elena Rardon

I have worked with the Alberni Valley News since 2016.
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