As I write this article in late July 2021, British Columbia still has more than 300 wildfires burning in the province. The latest outbreak has crews trying to control a 50-square-km blaze near Ashcroft in the central Interior. The province has now declared a provincial state of emergency because of the threat of intensifying wildfires. Weather conditions are anticipated to give rise to more intense fire activity and potential evacuations. High winds are driving many wildfires closer to neighbourhoods.
Certainly when we get a major fire close to homes or businesses there is a risk, not only of evacuation and an impact to residents’ lives, but a looming threat of business interruption as well. Nevertheless, the early start and frequency of this year’s fires is notable and the unpredictability of when and where these blazes are going to start is concerning to many in the region. Large fires can start close to populated areas with no notice, and it’s crucial to be prepared.
The number one piece of preparedness advice is awareness – always listen to authorities. If a community is on evacuation alert, residents need to be ready to go at the drop of a hat, equipped with a full tank of gas and a packed bag. Moving quickly can protect lives.
For businesses, preparation can be a complex matter, but is an important step toward mitigating risk and minimizing impact of a wildfire event. A 2021 First Onsite Survey found that 11 per cent of B.C. and 13 per cent of Alberta businesses have been interrupted by wildfires. Meanwhile, 28 per cent of B.C. businesses are concerned about future wildfires compared to 31 per cent of Alberta businesses. In Ontario, only four per cent have been interrupted by wildfires, but three times that number (11 per cent) are concerned about future wildfires. Nationally, the level of concern is 17 per cent.
There’s a reason for that concern. Whether a fire hits a nearby community or not, the poor air quality that results from wildfire smoke is a threat to people’s health. Often we see particulate levels in the air in major metropolitan areas like Vancouver and Toronto that are 30 or 40 times the normal safe limit because of wildfire smoke, even though the fire can be as far as 1,000 km away.
Depending on wind direction, the result can be a smoke-filled metropolitan area, such as we are seeing in several Canadian provinces and some U.S. jurisdictions. This can have a substantive and detrimental impact on air quality.
For business owners, employees and residents, breathing in wildfire smoke can be dangerous, and providing clean air for employees, customers, tenants and residents is a priority. Employers can take steps to protect workers, including allowing for flexible work schedules on low air quality days and installing additional air scrubbing equipment.
Wildfires have also highlighted the risks of fire and smoke damage to commercial and residential properties. It’s important for residents and business owners to be aware of the tangible ways they can protect their lives, properties and assets from wildfire. This includes making the roof fire-resistant; clearing away gutter debris; removing nearby coniferous trees; pruning trees and keeping the lawn mowed; using fire smart landscaping; and creating an evacuation plan. Additionally, it’s critical to ensure that businesses and homes have adequate insurance coverage.
Catastrophes provide an occasion to reshape our thinking about how our communities are planned and constructed to provide a safer, more sustainable environment. While community planners take into consideration how development can coexist with natural areas, communities can plan for events and take extra steps to prepare in advance to protect their properties, reduce business interruption and safeguard lives.