With proper precautions, Canadians living in forested and grassland areas can reduce their wildfire risk by up to 75 per cent, says a new report.

Released Monday by the University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, the report titled, Ahead of the flames: Preparing Canadian homes and communities to limit the growing risk of wildfire, offers more guidance on reducing the impact wildfires have on homes and communities.

Canada experienced an unprecedented wildfire season this year, with approximately 18.5 million hectares of area burned: an area more than three times larger than the province of Nova Scotia.

As climate change intensifies wildfire seasons, the report notes an estimated 60 per cent of communities in the country are in the wildland-urban interface, where buildings meet undeveloped swaths of land and forests. The areas are more vulnerable to fires, particularly when a high density of flammable trees and other vegetation are close to structures.

The report gathers best practices, relevant especially for those communities, and presents them along with infographic guides. Low-cost or free measures, such as pruning trees and cleaning up debris, are highlighted, as well as costlier suggestions like retrofitting decks with fire-rated material.

A community section also offers preventative measures for community design, structures and emergency response. Anabela Bonada, manager and research associate at Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, explains the 75-per-cent reduction can be achieved with a 10-metre fire buffer around a home or structure, where debris, trees and other vegetation are removed.

The report finds that individual action combined with wider efforts by municipalities to protect buildings in similar ways, restrict development in fire-prone areas and create multiple evacuation routes can greatly reduce the human impact of wildfires in Canada.

Part of an infographic showing what communities can do to reduce wildfire risk. Infographic courtesy of the University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation

“Both are important because even though there's a lot that you can do at the home level … if your neighbours or your community hasn't implemented any sort of these measures, then your home can still very much burn,” said Bonada, who is co-author of the report.

With proper precautions, Canadians living in forested and grassland areas can reduce their wildfire risk by up to 75 per cent, says a new report from the University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation.

The recommendations, which were developed by the National Research Council of Canada and FireSmart Canada, come as conversation continues to bubble around how Ottawa should be supporting communities at risk of wildfires.

In September, West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund addressed the United Nations and noted: “Over $20 million was spent reacting to [the West Kelowna] fire, not to mention the insurance losses, which could be triple that.

“What could we have accomplished if we used that same amount of money proactively? We’re spending the money on the wrong end of the problem.”

In the months before, the federal government released its final climate adaptation strategy to reduce climate change impacts — including wildfires — to improve health outcomes and protect nature. About $284 million was specifically earmarked for reducing wildfire risk in communities.

Bonada notes the strategy sets targets, such as ensuring 50 per cent of Canadians know their wildfire risk by 2025 and communities have wildfire plans by 2028. She said the report is “presenting a community-level response and [showing] the tools available,” which can help governments achieve their targets in the strategy.

Meanwhile, Indigenous people living on reserves make up over 30 per cent of those in the wildland-urban interface, and First Nations communities are hit the hardest during wildfire season. At the same time, the federal government continues to underinvest in disaster preparedness and mitigation on First Nations despite ballooning recovery costs from the worst wildfire season on record, according to documents shared with Canada’s National Observer.

Education from the feds

A gap the new report notes is the lack of wildfire mitigation education in Canada. A key recommendation is for the federal government to “deploy a national education program on wildfires,” explained Bonada.

Bonada hopes the report can help communities and individuals learn more about how to protect themselves from wildfires. She notes that many who took precautions to protect their homes from wildfires before the devastating wildfire in Fort McMurray saved their homes.

Overall, climate change mitigation measures are shown to save money in the long run: the Canadian Climate Institute notes that every dollar invested in climate mitigation saves $13 to $15 in avoided costs at a time when climate change is already costing billions of dollars in damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure.

— With files from Matteo Cimellaro

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