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Whitehorse Firesmart plan worth millions

There’s about $2.5 million in Firesmart work to be done in the Whitehorse area.Experts who mapped about 4,000 hectares west of the Alaska…

There’s about $2.5 million in Firesmart work to be done in the Whitehorse area.

Experts who mapped about 4,000 hectares west of the Alaska Highway estimated an average cost of $5,000 per hectare to cut buffers, thin dense stands of spruce and pine trees and remove fuels from the forest floor.

Working in a targeted area bordered by Mount Sima Road to the south, Fish Lake Road to the north, the Copper Haul Road to the west and the Alaska Highway to the east, the experts identified 500 hectares that should be treated to lower the chances of wildfire damage to communities.

 “Fire is a hazard to avoid, but it is also inevitable and a natural process,” said David Loeks, proprietor of TransNorthern Management Consulting, which has created seven Firesmart plans in the territory.

“There is no way of over-emphasizing how important a project like this is, in terms of community safety,” Loeks said at Elijah Smith Elementary School Thursday night.

About 20 people gathered there to learn about the plan to save Whitehorse from wildfires.

Part of Whitehorse’s problem is its wildland-urban interface, said Loeks.

From sparsely populated regions like McLean Lake to planned subdivisions like Copper Ridge and Granger, wilderness encircles and runs through Whitehorse neighbourhoods.

The 2002 Firesmart plan for the city includes cutting 30-metre buffer zones around subdivisions, and some of that work still needs to be done, said Loeks.

But Loeks and Brad Armitage of Ember Research Services won a $75,000 contract to plan for the Big One: the possibility of a massive crown fire sweeping in from the west, like the one that destroyed 300 homes in Kelowna, BC, in 2003.

“If you do have wildfire in a broader landscape moving at a high intensity and broad front to the edge of a community, what is igniting your structures isn’t this wall of flame that’s pushing up against it, it’s this rain of embers coming down,” said Loeks.

“And if the ember throw is such that you can keep on top of it, run around and put them out, that’s great.

“But if it’s essentially a barrage, that can overwhelm the capacities of the firefighters.”

Loeks and Armitage did their homework with forestry inventory maps from the Yukon government.

They walked most of the targeted region in summer 2005 and came to several conclusions.

The main thrust of their plan is to create three large “lines of control” that would act as firebreaks to slow a class 5 crown fire and give firefighting crews a chance to suppress it.

The forest fuels surrounding Mount Sima Road are relatively less incendiary than other parts of the targeted region, so the area could be made into a control line by removing some conifers and allowing deciduous trees room to grow.

Another control line could be extended from the deactivated Whitehorse Copper mine site to the Alaska Highway.

And a third control line would be a 150-metre expansion to the McLean Lake Road right-of-way.

“The objective of the second part of Firesmart, which is looking at the broader landscape farther out, is to somehow fragment the forest or alter its structure in a way so that you reduce the likelihood of an out-of-control crown fire,” said Loeks.

“Right-of-ways work as fuel breaks, but they’re also very important for lines of escape and public safety.”

A steep escarpment and a gully offer natural protection to Copper Ridge, Logan and Arkell, he added.

There might be some merchantable timber west of Copper Ridge that could be harvested for profit.

Other regions could be cut for firewood.

Riparian zones surrounding waterways require a 30-metre buffer, and Loeks recommended extending powerline right-of-ways to 50 metres.

In treatment areas no more than 15 pieces of fallen timber should be left on a single hectare, to reduce fuels on the forest floor, he added.

Loeks and Armitage must submit their plan to Whitehorse fire chief Clive Sparks by the end of March 2006.

Then Sparks will take it to city council for approval before beginning community consultations.

Ultimately, the Firesmart work could be done by city or territorial work crews, First Nations, non-profit organizations or community associations, said Sparks.

“We’ve been able to access funding through different avenues for the city and the community associations,” he said.

“There has been significant work surrounding a number of the subdivisions.”

If and when the extensive Firesmart plan is approved, groups will be able to apply for Firesmart funding from the Yukon government.

Such contracts have never been worth more than $50,000, said Sparks.

Individuals cannot apply, he added.

Meanwhile, even if all precautions were taken — and all the money were spent — there’s no guarantee communities would be completely safe from wildfires, said Loeks.

The Firesmart project decreases the likelihood of a catastrophe, he said.