Whitehorse ill prepared for forest fire

Whitehorse is a catastrophe waiting to happen, in Dave Loeks' opinion. Loeks is a master of forestry science and has been working in the field since he graduated in 1983.

Whitehorse is a catastrophe waiting to happen, in Dave Loeks’ opinion.

Loeks is a master of forestry science and has been working in the field since he graduated in 1983.

In 2006, he coauthored a fuel-management plan for western Whitehorse, from Whitehorse Copper to Kopper King.

This plan located a number of dangerous sections of forest in the city where a potential fire would burn particularly hot and fast, and recommended ways to help mitigate this risk.

Unfortunately, this plan hasn’t received much funding or support.

“Given the right conditions it could very easily be a catastrophe along the lines of Kelowna,” Loeks pointed out during a tour of some of the areas laid out in his plan.

In the summer of 2003, almost 250 homes were destroyed by a forest fire in Kelowna, BC.

The fact a similar fire hasn’t wiped out a few homes in the Yukon may just be a matter of dumb luck.

Loeks shifts his battered truck into neutral and points out the window.

“Look at that. That is an egregious oversight.”

He’s pointing toward a stand of densely packed spruce, snuggled up close against the bright blue walls of Ecole Emilie Tremblay.

“The kids would be evacuated long before a fire reached here, but still the infrastructure of the school itself would be in big trouble. It’s an unnecessary risk.”

Continuing along Falcon Drive up into Copper Ridge, he points out other areas that have been long slated for work but received little attention.

This despite the fact that Copper Ridge is in one of the most dangerous locations in the city.

“Riverdale and the downtown core are down in a low elevation and are not in terribly bad shape,” said Loeks.

“But something like the new developments at the top of Hamilton Boulevard are occupying high ground and down slope and downwind of them are just miles and miles of fuel.”

Fire spreads more rapidly up wind and also burns faster up hill.

“So if you have lots of fuel and are up slope with a wind behind it you have pretty spectacular conditions,” said Loeks.

“And that in a nutshell describes the new neighbourhoods of Granger, Logan, Copper Ridge and all the others.”

It’s not as if it hasn’t happened before.

In 1969, the new town of Faro was razed by wildfire and had to be completely rebuilt.

In 1958, Whitehorse was nearly evacuated because of the Takhini burn, which stopped not far outside of Porter Creek.

And there was a more recent scare when Haeckel Hill burned in 1991, threatening the Crestview subdivision.

Fred Jennex, the manager of Firesmart with Community Services, did not respond to questions before deadline.

The Firesmart program began about 15 years ago, according to Loeks.

The program began as both an attempt to control forest fires and a winter work program.

“It killed two birds with one stone,” Loeks explained.

“Unfortunately, winter isn’t the ideal time to do this type of work.”

Snow makes it difficult to clear ground cover, which is important to prevent the spread of fire.

Recent complaints about how the Firesmart program was conducted in Faro revealed the work was inspected by Community Services on December 21, when there was 30 to 35 centimetres of snow on the ground.

Firesmarting usually involves thinning and pruning a 30-metre strip around each community.

This won’t necessarily stop a fire – with the right conditions, a fire can jump across the Yukon River – but it might slow it down.

When a new subdivision is developed in Whitehorse, Firesmarting has to be done in the greenbelts and surrounding area prior to lots being sold.

Communities apply for funding to perform Firesmart and then are expected to follow protocols.

“There is a maximum amount you can get, which is not huge,” said Whitehorse Fire Chief Clive Sparks.

“But each community association can apply as well, so it can add up to a fair bit within the city of Whitehorse.

“I don’t know how much we’ve done or how much we need to do, but there is a considerable amount of work that needs to be done yet.”

The city’s fuel-management program, which is separate from Firesmart and involves building strategic firebreaks and clearing access routes, only began last year.

Paying for the project has proved problematic as both the city and territory don’t have funds designated towards fuel management.

Loeks’ 2006 report estimated full fuel management would cost over $2.6 million, and that only included western Whitehorse.

Sparks disagrees with Loeks that Copper Ridge and the other communities along Hamilton Boulevard are more vulnerable to fire than others.

“I would say that we have concerns wherever dwellings or a subdivision abuts the forest.”

Some residents understand the importance of fire prevention.

Many areas of McIntyre subdivision have been Firesmarted to perfection by the Kwanlin Dun First Nation.

The trees have been thinned so the spruce crowns are around two to three metres apart, the lower branches have been pruned to a height of two metres and all ground fuels have been removed.

In recent Firesmart areas, the forest looks neat and park-like with wildflowers growing between trees.

In older areas, two-metre-high aspens have begun to appear.

This is what Loeks likes to see.

Waterlogged aspens, birch, balsam poplars and willows burn far less easily than the dry spruce and pine, providing a natural firebreak, which will help slow a fire down.

“It’s an esthetic thing for some people. Many people don’t like this because they think it’s unnatural,” said Loeks.

“But often when a fire comes through the spruce and pine burn leaving the aspens just like this. The only thing unnatural about it is how it got to this point. If it were really natural, a fire likely would have burned through here long ago.”

The First Nation has also rented out its Firesmarting expertise in the new Whitehorse Copper subdivision.

The thinning in much of the subdivision’s public land was contracted out to Kwanlin Dun and met Loeks’ approval as the tour continued south.

“Now here’s someone who’s taking it seriously,” Loeks says, pulling into the driveway of a home still under construction, exterior walls still covered in plywood.

Again the trees are spaced and pruned. The brush and twigs have been removed and piles of wood are stacked neatly beside the house.

With new country residential properties, like the ones in Whitehorse Copper, the owner of the property must do the Firesmarting around their land before they can get their final occupancy permit.

After that the maintenance of it is more voluntary.

Some of the new homes don’t seem to take fuel management too seriously.

The bright red roof of one house, only 50 metres from the road, can barely be seen through the dense trees and brush.

The far entrance of the new subdivision has the opposite problem.

Perhaps bored of going tree to tree with a chainsaw, someone had thinned the corridor with heavy machinery.

Small aspens were growing in but only a smattering of large trees remained.

“This is not what they intended,” said Loeks.

“This is the type of thing that gives fuel management a bad name.”

Loeks is aware people accuse him of fear mongering.

Still, he can’t help but think of the few factors it would take to create a Sebastian Junger-style perfect storm.

“Start in Carcross and drive up the Carcross valley and consider that the entire valley, all the way to Hillcrest, is an unbroken mass of fuel,” he said.

“With dry conditions, a good stiff south wind and a hot start down there – and if there are other fires being fought elsewhere, because there are only so many resources – we could be in serious trouble.”

Contact Chris at chriso@yukon-news.com