“I knew this day would come and unless there’s change, it’s going to come again.”
As wildfires raged through subdivisions in Tantallon, Hammonds Plains, and Bedford two weeks ago, retired Halifax Regional Municipality firefighter Paul Irving was filled with frustration and sadness for the 151 families who lost their homes.
Irving believes some of those homes might have been saved if HRM Fire had embraced a short report he wrote in 2004 — almost 20 years ago — about a program known as FireSmart.
“The biggest thing about FireSmart,” says Irving, “is it provides homes with an opportunity to survive, even if you can’t stop the fire.”
After close to 21,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes in Halifax and Shelburne counties, Nova Scotians are starting to realize some wildfires, once they start, become simply too big for people to fight.
Irving, who spent 34 years as a firefighter before retiring as a platoon captain in 2018, says the “same variables” of low humidity, high temperatures, and wind create fires that spread too quickly to manage on the ground and can only be contained by immediate action from the air or a change in the weather, such as the fortuitous rains which arrived June 3. (Nova Scotia does not own water bombing aircraft that is a key weapon against this type of fire. The Dept of Natural Resources and Renewables owns several helicopters but they carry smaller amounts of water)
“When you look back at the major fires HRM has had, they are all very similar. They started on a hot day, with wind, and low humidity. The Herring Cove fire in 2009, the Kingswood fire, the fire in Eastern Passage, and Porter’s Lake. The firefighters were all trying to evacuate people because the fires moved so fast.”
When a fire grows too big for people to get ahead of it, tough decisions have to be made by those on the ground.
“If there is a fire threatening an area, firefighters will go in and do what we call a triage,” explains Irving. “They will come to each property and say this one meets the guidelines — we can defend this one. Another one, if it doesn’t meet the guidelines, we can’t put people there because it’s too dangerous.”
The guidelines Irving refers to are contained in a prevention program called FireSmart implemented by many Canadian municipalities, but which has only recently begun to get any traction in Nova Scotia. In a report he prepared and submitted in 2004 to the Fire department, entitled “FireSmart and HRM,” Irving provided information about how to make “defensive spaces” around property.
When homes or businesses are built in wooded areas — and we have lots of subdivisions in HRM that fit the description of what’s known as a Wildland Urban Interface or WUI areas — finding ways to establish buffer zones between property and fire is a sensible idea.
Look around your community and see how many properties have softwood trees like spruce, pine, and fir growing right up to the homes. Ask yourself how anyone could stop a wildfire from burning these homes when the trees are so close. Now consider properties where there is a lawn area separating the forest from the homes and think how much easier it would be for a home to survive with that separation. With proper planning wildfires could become a very nasty occurrence rather than adisaster that destroys our homes and communities.
The few journalists who have been permitted to tour several burned out neighbourhoods in the Tantallon area have marvelled at the seemingly random nature of damage wreaked by the fire — on the same side of the street, one home may survive intact while another has been reduced to rubble.
Deputy chief Dave Meldrum suggested that as the fire moved, it threw embers high in the air which the wind carried to ignite homes and other structures.
Irving offers an additional explanation. Maybe the fire spared some homes that provided less “fuel” for the fire and had better defences.
As reported in the Halifax Examiner on June 5, Westwood Hills, where the Tantallon fire started, was one of the first communities in the province to start thinking proactively about fire prevention. Many homes were lost, yet others remain.
According to FireSmart Canada, “Consideration of wildfire at the development planning stage is a key step in protecting neighbourhoods from wildfire.”
Despite that, asks Irving, how many suburban communities built in HRM since 2004 only have one exit in case of an emergency? As the wildfire which ignited May 28 in a backyard on Juneberry Lane has illustrated, perhaps dozens of subdivisions are equally compromised.
HRM has since committed and begun to build a couple of emergency gravel roads to provide a second escape route for people living in Halliburton Hills and Highland Park subdivisions off the Hammonds Plains Road. Westwood, where 150 people once lived, also has only one road that served as both entrance and exit
Warning advice ignored
“I’m not trying to create a panic or anything else,” Irving told the Examiner. “I’m just really upset that so many homes were lost and people were put in that kind of danger, when they (HRM Fire) knew.”
Irving believes that had HRM Fire been proactive in adopting and promoting FireSmart principles after receiving his 2004 report, there could have been fewer losses and less heartache.
He learned about FireSmart almost by accident. After Hurricane Juan in the fall of 2003, Irving went to the deputy chief concerned that the brush and blowdown from Juan posed a significant fire hazard to HRM. Then-Deputy Chief Steven Thurber agreed and removed Irving from his regular duties and tasked him with what was called the Wildland Project.
At that time, wildfires in California had destroyed thousands of homes, and British Columbia had gone through its own firestorm where the damage was calculated at $700 million.
“As I continued researching,” Irving says, “I realized Halifax didn’t just have a situation with the trees that were blown down — there was a bigger situation. And my conclusion was, as firefighters, we really can’t stop these big fires. People may think we can, but we can’t. But what we can do is prepare for them.”
“In my report, I provided the research from British Columbia,” Irving continues, “and I told my boss, the only thing we can really do is adopt the principles of the FireSmart program. And he basically told me that wasn’t going to happen. What Thurber said was, ‘when the alarm goes, we are going to respond.’”
Irving recalls another senior fire manager telling him, “We must keep the public oblivious to this.”
Irving doesn’t know if anyone at city hall ever saw or received his report. He says although the original plan was to take the report to an HRM Council meeting, that never happened.
“The Fire Department wouldn’t let me anywhere near council,” says Irving. “They didn’t want someone coming in and saying this is really what we need to do. The bottom line is the program requires a higher level of commitment than just the homeowners. It requires the Planning Department to become involved. For example, you don’t build a subdivision with only one way out. But the political will isn’t there to do those things because it costs more money, and it takes more time and requires a commitment from all the stakeholders.”
Irving says the next fire chief also “brushed off” his research.
At one point, after the Herring Cove fire in 2009, his superiors asked for a copy of the FireSmart report because insurance companies preparing to sue the city on behalf of homeowners found out about it through a Freedom of Information request.
Sometime after he handed over all the information from the Wildland project, Irving says he learned every word of his FireSmart report sent to the deputy chief was redacted or blacked out as “personal.”
Eight luxury homes and 10 others had been damaged in that fire. Legal proceedings against HRM and the Fire Department continued until 2016 when the lawsuit was dropped.
Irving says he also had meetings with people from the Department of Natural Resources back in 2004 but there wasn’t the “political will” then to pursue FireSmart. Irving says a few pamphlets got printed and today, 19 years later, HRM citizens can find information about the program on the HRM Fire website page.
But in terms of public awareness, FireSmart still flies largely under the radar. The Examiner has asked HRM for information about the number of communities and number of homeowners who have registered. When that information is available, this article will be updated.
What needs to change, says Irving, is for politicians, developers, planners, and fire officials to become proactive and to implement established guidelines that have worked elsewhere to help protect people and property from wildfire.
Here’s a final thought-provoking excerpt from Irving’s “FireSmart and HRM” report from 2004:
With reports being tabled that warn us of the dangers involved with the Wildland Urban Interface and the added suppressionhazards that we face in the wake of Hurricane Juan, we don’t have much choice but to address the situation in the best way possible. FireSmart is not the complete solution to our problem but it is a big step in the right direction.
The disasters have happened elsewhere and as we grow, the possibility of them happening keeps increasing. In the HRM we have been very lucky a couple of times in the past couple of years, first with the Kingswood fire and then with the Cole Harbour/Eastern Passage fire. We have huge areas of Wildland Urban Interface and we need the cooperation and assistance of every citizen who lives in and every developer who builds in the urban interface to understand, accept and participate in the FireSmart program.
The alarm bells are ringing now. And the response? At a June 6 meeting of HRM Council, Chief Administrative Officer Cathie O’Toole said:
Under the business plan that council approved, one of the initiatives under Fire this year is actually a wildfire strategy that would also look at risk reduction. So I anticipate that some of the things we can do from a planning and development perspective will arise through that work in the wildfire strategy.
Still, the big worry on Paul Irving’s mind is whether meaningful actions can be taken in time to prevent more losses before the next major wildfire blows up. For him, it’s not a question of if, but when, the next one will occur.