Charles McLaren, chief of Golden Horn Volunteer Fire Department, poses for a photo at the fire hall in Whitehorse on March 8. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Golden Horn fire chief worries Yukon unprepared for major urban fire

‘It’s gonna happen. It’s not a question of if’

Charles McLaren thinks the best fire to fight is the one that never happens, but he’s not convinced that’s the kind of fire Whitehorse is going to see.

“Be ready,” he told a News reporter March 8. “It’s gonna happen. It’s not a question of if.”

McLaren has been with the Golden Horn Volunteer Fire Department for 25 years. He’s been chief for the last eight years. He said he’s largely concerned with interface fires — the kind that’s a collision between nature and city. The moment a forest fire encroaches on a building or structure. The kind of fire Fort McMurray saw in 2016.

How common are they in the North?

“In the Yukon, that’s actually hard and easy to answer,” said McLaren. “Because the answer is ‘not that often,’ but not without lack of trying. We’ve kind of been really lucky. The only interface fire in recent memory is Burwash Landing in 1999.”

McLaren was on one of the crews that fought that fire. If you didn’t know the community, he said, you would have been lost. The smoke was so thick you couldn’t see 10 metres ahead of you. He said it was chaotic, and the only reason it consumed relatively little of the town is that there was a wind shift that blew the fire in a different direction.

He said the territory hasn’t really been tested since then. Years ago, a fire snuck up to the back edge of Copper Ridge. There was another one along Annie Lake Road, which he said could have been devastating if conditions had been slightly different.

There was also a bad year in 2004, when 1.7 million hectares burned (compared to an annual average of 120,000 hectares). That prompted the government at the time to commission a report. McLaren said a number of recommendations came out of that.

Some have been implemented, others have not. Community Services Minister John Streicker said the government is working on a way to get emergency alerts out to the public via cell phones.

McLaren feels one of the highest priority recommendations is to expand the integration of volunteer fire departments. Not only do the volunteer crews need to be better integrated with municipal and wildland fire, McLaren feels all fire crews need to have better integration with organizations including the airport, ATCO Electric, Northwestel and the military.

“I relate this to a jigsaw where there’s a bunch of pieces in the box,” McLaren said. “Some of the pieces are pretty good. There is no picture on the box necessarily as you put it together. What we’re looking for is that integrated plan which is prevention, preparedness, operational response.”

He said he’s been asking the government for answers on this, particularly minister of community services John Streicker.

Streicker responded to questions from NDP Leader Liz Hanson when she raised the issue in the legislature on March 8.

“My question is straightforward,” said Hanson. “Is there an integrated Yukon plan in the event of a wildland fire that poses threat to communities?”

Streicker said there is an integrated plan, though it’s one that needs to be continuously worked on.

“I don’t want to think of it as a static thing,” he said. “I think of it as continuous work that we are always doing because it is a serious issue and we know its importance.”

Streicker told reporters after question period March 8 that fire is a risk the government is aware of.

“I mean, come on, we live in the forest here,” he said. “Every community has some risk and we need to work continuously to make sure that that (emergency response) plan is up to date. That it’s integrated with all the other communities, municipalities, our wildland fire crews, RCMP and our emergency measures organization.”

Streicker said he understands McLaren’s concerns.

“Having seen large fires in B.C. and the Northwest Territories and Alberta, there’s that heightened awareness here,” he said. And knowing that the forest, especially to the south of Whitehorse, is very mature, and has not seen a fire in a long time, those things elevate risks.”

McLaren highlighted those large fires as well. They were devastating even with large crews, he said.

“Because we don’t have the resources or the crew level, we have to be smarter,” he said. “We have to be prepared.”

In the short term, he said he wants to see the plans for an emergency fire response.

In a separate interview, Streicker said he was heading into a meeting with the Department of Community Services to discuss how to share the emergency response plan more broadly.

“I’m aware that (Charles) has concerns,” he said.

“This is someone who’s got a lot of concerns and wants to be better informed and I’m happy to try and support that.”

Contact Amy Kenny at amy.kenny@yukon-news.com

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