Port Alberni city council agreed on Monday that not enough has been done to prepare for wildfires in the community, and directed staff to work on mitigating interface fires.
This discussion was prompted by a letter to council from Peter Finch, who asked for the status of the city’s action plan to reduce interface fire risk, the city’s preparation planning for interface fire events and a residential awareness plan.
Port Alberni Fire Department Fire Chief Kelly Gilday responded by providing a written report to council on July 10 with some information regarding wildfire mitigation preparation for the Alberni Valley.
Councillor Jack McLeman said that interface fires are a “very real danger” in the valley.
“We don’t have as many roads as 100 Mile House does to get out of here,” he said. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The whole concept we’ve done in this Valley for emergency planning has been around a tsunami and a tidal wave. If we see a fire coming from 10 kilometres away just heading here, where are we going? There’s no plan for that anywhere in this Valley.”
He pointed out that although there are back roads in and out of the Valley, not everyone knows how to drive them.
Mayor Mike Ruttan agreed, “It would be very difficult to drive through those back roads if the smoke is as thick as it is up in the Interior.”
The mayor said he was “disappointed” in the lack of leadership from emergency planning. He pointed out that there are significant dollars available from the federal government for grant applications, and that he would like to see a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood or house-by-house planned response to such an emergency.
“Our greatest danger is from forest fires,” he said. “I’m disappointed that we haven’t seen that leadership. I’d like to see the plans and I’d like to see us using our current available resources to address those to help create and address the issue.”
City CAO Tim Pley is the city’s former fire chief, who was involved in the city’s mitigation work. He said Tuesday the city works closely with the BC Wildfire Service and the ACRD, but with the municipality being so small, part of the emergency plan is largely beyond the control of the city itself. The city is surrounded by heavily forested, privately and publicly owned land.
“We don’t have any control over that,” said Pley.
He added, “We’re doing as much as we can preventing fire starts and responding to fire starts.” The city’s fire department is staffed 24/7, and firefighters are prepared to go outside city limits to respond to fires.
The parks department also regularly takes out dead trees and underbrush to work on clearing out flammable debris. The city recently did some work at McLean Mill with the Thunderbirds firefighting squad where they went through the site and removed some of the debris. “They did that as sort of a model project, so people can see what wildfire mitigation looks like,” said Pley.
Pley agreed that the Wildfire Protection Plan could be updated, and this is something that the city will work on with the Regional District.
“The best mitigation is to prevent that fire,” he said. “What we’ve been seeing out in the Interior, when you get a fire in those conditions, there’s no stopping it. You just have to get out of the way. That’s a very difficult thing to have to go through. It’s far better to prevent it.”
Council directed staff to work on mitigation for interface fires, potentially working with the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District.