West Kelowna's fire chief hopes it won't take a wildfire to make homeowners fire smart | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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West Kelowna's fire chief hopes it won't take a wildfire to make homeowners fire smart

Past forest fires in West Kelowna haven't inspired residents take advantage of grant funding to protect their properties.

During a quiet forest fire season in 2019, West Kelowna Fire Rescue Chief Jason Brolund couldn’t pay most people to improve the fire safety of their properties.

“It was free money,” he told iNFOnews.ca, referring to the $25,000 in grants available to residents who want to remove fuel from their properties under the City’s Fire Smart program.

“The unfortunate thing is this isn’t front of mind unless it’s happening right in front of them,” Brolund said. “We see that, in years when we have local fires, people are far more motivated to protect themselves. In years when the fires are further away, people think it’s not happening here.”

The wildfire risk for West Kelowna may be greater than for many B.C. communities given how the community is bordered by steep forested slopes, has a number of heavily forested creeks running through it and numerous subdivisions built in wooded areas.

Even waterfront property owners could do more to lessen their risks.

“The nature of the challenge we have is it’s throughout our municipality,” Brolund said. “It could be houses on the lakeshore that have a row of cedar hedges running right from the street to the house or it could be West Kelowna Estates where people have pine trees growing through their decks onto their cedar shake roofs, filling the eaves with needles.”

Many people like the look of the growth around them but may not realize how flammable it can be.

“Some people may value the greenery and the beautiful cedar hedges around their homes and they think it won’t happen to me here,” Brolund said. “A lush green cedar hedge looks beautiful but on the inside it’s gasoline.”

Last year, out of the $25,000 in grants available, 23 people accessed $5,850 worth of the free cash, 36 loads of wood debris were taken to the dump for free and $534 was paid out in dumpster bin rentals. One example given to West Kelowna council earlier in the week had four property owners band together to remove flammable junipers.

Given the extent of the work that the needs to be done, Brolund acknowledged that fire mitigation on individual properties may just be a drop in the bucket, but every little bit helps.

"Only good can come of people doing this work," Brolund said.

Groups of neighbours banding together or efforts organized by neighbourhood associations will be supported. The Huntsfield Green strata development on Horizon Drive got together to mitigate the fire risks around their properties about 18 months ago.

On offer for this year are individual grants of $500 with a total of $15,000 available, $3,000 to provide collection bins and chipping services at the neighbourhood level and $2,000 to offset tipping fees.

The money can be used for things like replacing combustible roofs and siding, removing cedar hedges, spacing trees and installing sprinkler systems on buildings.

While $500 won’t go far towards replacing a cedar shake roof, it still helps, Brolund said.

Given COVID-19, the applications can be filed with before and after photos by sending an email to wkfr.prevention@westkelownacity.ca or phoning 778-797-3200.

One of the most cost effective fire mitigation strategies on City-owned land is to have controlled burns, Brolund said. Plans were being made to do some burning this spring but were waylaid by COVID-19.

The idea is to do small burns of dry fuel in places like parks to reduce the risk of bigger, hotter uncontrolled wildfires.

To clear the brush by hand and haul it away can cost $7,500 per hectare. Burning is far cheaper and can make a much bigger dent in the sizeable amount of work that needs to be done, Brolund said.

Controlled burns, like cleaning up private land, will take a significant education program as many people don’t like the idea of fires being set in parks next to their homes. It’s hoped that some burning can be done in the fall.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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