DAWSON CITY – Fires like the one in Fort McMurray, Alta. in 2016 can be devastating and dangerous events.
Bill Klassen began his presentation to the Association of Yukon Communities’ 2018 AGM by stressing that fires are natural events in the boreal forest zone.
“All Yukon communities are located within the boreal forest, and northern forests are designed to be renewed by burning,’ Klassen told the delegates. “They burn, it varies – 40 to 80 or every 120 years.”
Klassen, a former Yukon government deputy minister, has extensive experience in natural resource management.
“If these forests don’t burn, then Mother Nature finds other ways to recycle them. In Haines Junction, the spruce bark beetle is doing an excellent job of killing mature white spruce, which then makes them susceptible to burning as well,” he said.
Some delegates were aware of the 1958 fire which burned extensive areas north and west of Whitehorse, Klassen said, as well as the 1969 fire that burned the-then new town of Faro.
“And I expect that all of you will remember the 2004 fire season which threatened the Dawson area as well, and burned 1.7 million hectares of Yukon forest land,”
The more recent example of a boreal forest community, or at least part of it, burning, was Fort McMurray in 2016.
“As a result of that, a group of us in Whitehorse, who have some expertise in this field, got together and we met with government officials, urging action to reduce
the risk of the wildland fire threat to Yukon communities, and also to put emergency action plans in place,” Klassen said.
“Then, in the event of a need to evacuate a Yukon community, those plans would be there.
“As a side note, I was pleased to learn that there was a multi-agency planning exercise in Whitehorse this past week.” (See last week’s Star articles.)
Klassen distributed a handout taken from the details of the report that was drafted to analyze the 2004 fire season and was presented to the Yukon government in 2005.
The 97-page report made 50 recommendations, based on the assumption, as he put it, that “sooner or later, all communities can be vulnerable.”
The items Klassen highlighted came under the general heading “Community-related Action items from the 2004 Wildland Fire Review Panel Final Report”.
These are all primarily pro-active rather than reactive actions, including:
• design strategies to reduce fuel loading and fuel continuity, within and beyond the wildland/urban interface zone;
• expand the integration of volunteer fire departments beyond the Whitehorse/Southern Lakes region, on a priority basis;
• training for these departments in wildland firefighting operations and the EMO’s duty officer training should be expanded significantly;
• procure wildland firefighting equipment for volunteer departments, beginning with 4x4 trucks and pumper units;
• evaluate the introduction of hazard reduction burns to reduce wildfire hazards in proximity to community, or other corridor values;
• increase the priority for mitigating the spruce beetle hazard in the Haines Junction/Kluane region and continuous fuels adjacent to the city of Whitehorse; and
• incorporate stand-by and loaded vehicle patrols at higher fire hazards into regular routine of volunteer fire departments, Yukon wide.
In addition, Klassen recommended the use of sprinkler systems, such as are currently used to protect areas identified as “values” in the wilderness zone.
FireSmarting is an essential activity, and one that some Yukoners, who like to see their trees, resist.
Klassen said there is a need to develop what is currently being referred to as a “social licence” to do things that are necessary.
Among those things would be thinning out areas of dense coniferous (evergreen) growth and replanting deciduous (hardwoods) to interrupt the fire susceptible
Perhaps the trees that need to be cut for thinning could be converted to biomass fuels, with the joint effect of reducing the fire risk and reducing the need for imported fossil fuels in the territory.
Fire guards, he warned, as not terribly effective, since embers can often fly through the air for vast distances.
In Fort Murray, for instance, they crossed roads (as they have done in the Yukon) and rivers.
As far as Klassen is aware, some 26 of the 50 recommendations in the 2005 report had been acted on.