Tucked in the Rockies, the mountain towns of Banff and Canmore are built in a long, narrow valley surrounded by forests of Lodgepole pine, Douglas fir and spruce trees along steep slopes.
The Crowsnest Pass, which was spared in the Lost Creek fire in 2003, sits in a low-elevation mountain pass in the middle of mature trees down in southern Alberta.
Each community — and dozens of other Alberta towns and cities along the eastern slopes and in the northern boreal forests — are at risk for so-called “wildland-urban interface fires” that are becoming more common as people settle in forested areas.
Many in those places are wondering whether their communities are prepared as they watch the Fort McMurray wildfire.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Steve Debienne, manager of protective services in the Crowsnest Pass who worked in northern Saskatchewan during 2015’s extreme fire season. “Looking at the destruction to the Fort Mac area is unbelievable and unprecedented.
“Who would ever think a city would be devastated like that?”
Yet, there have been several destructive wildfires in Alberta — including one in Chisholm, which destroyed 10 homes and a trapper’s cabin in 2001, and the one in Crowsnest Pass that burned 21,165 hectares in 26 days in 2003.
They led to the provincial launch of a FireSmart program to educate Albertans who live in forested areas on ways they can make their homes and communities more fire resistant.
A similar effort followed the 2011 Slave Lake fire, which destroyed 510 homes and left an estimated $700 million in damage.
It resulted in a report with 21 recommendations — such as training quick-response firefighting specialists, having more widespread fire bans and forest area closures, and doing more work on fire prevention.
So why wasn’t Fort McMurray better protected from a wildfire?
Officials with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry have said that a lot of preventative work has been completed in Alberta communities, but no amount of fire proofing would have prevented the massive blaze in Fort McMurray.
“With the nature of this fire and the dangerous conditions that we have, no size of fire break would hold this fire,” said Chad Morrison, senior wildfire manager with the province, said Friday. “This fire jumped the Athabasca River, which is over a kilometre wide.
“It’s an extreme, rare, rare fire event and that’s something that’s historic for us.”
Fires are expected to move faster, burn more intensely and become increasingly unpredictable as the forests dry due to climate change and pine beetle infestations.
However, an expert on insurance, disaster safety and economic policy said it’s not too late to reduce the risk.
“There’s a lot more we can do,” said Paul Kovacs, executive director of the Toronto-based Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction. “We think FireSmart is a very strong program.
“It’s a program that came out of Alberta and it’s now a national program that’s been committed to by the government of Alberta and by a number of communities in the province and across the country as the best national plan we can have to help homeowners be as ready as they can be.”
Several communities — including Canmore and Crowsnest Pass — have embraced the provincial program, which doles out about $25 million annually.
Kovacs also applauded other towns and cities across Alberta.
In Swan Hills, a small community in the middle of the boreal forest in northern Alberta, a bylaw was passed to ensure every building in the community has a roof that’s resilient to fire.
“That’s a very simple thing to make as the law,” said Kovacs, noting people can also create a fire-safe zone around their own property by cutting back on trees and planting grass. “There are different behaviours that can take place at the property level and at the community level.”
Many forested communities have been planning ahead.
Around Canmore and Banff, there have been prescribed burns around the towns — in places like Carrot Creek and the Sawback in Banff National Park — to provide required fire breaks.
On Monday, Banff’s town council received an update on its Wildfire Preparedness Guide to deal with potential wildfires.
“I believe we’re very prepared,” said Silvio Adamo, fire chief and manager of protective services in the Town of Banff. “You can never eliminate all of the risk.”
However, the town does prohibit combustible roofing, owns a structure protection sprinkler trailer and has worked to reduce fire fuel around the townsite.
Officials in Canmore has also thinned out areas of vegetation and deadfall on municipal and provincial lands that could become fuel in a wildfire.
“It’s just to reduce the chance of a small fire turning into a larger fire in a short period of time,” said J.T. Gill, assistant fire chief for the Town of Canmore. “It won’t necessarily stop a forest fire coming through town, but it would prevent a small one from becoming really big before we get there.”
Back in the Crowsnest, with the help of the Slave Lake fire department, the municipality has created a special task force to try and keep the area safe from wildfires — mimicking a similar team in Slave Lake and making it only the second specialized wildfire crew in Alberta.
“We took a proactive approach,” said Debienne, who became a firefighter because his family lost their home in a fire when he was 11. “We need to look at our surroundings and what hazards can we mitigate? We know we have slopes and aspects here with the mountains. We can’t eliminate that. We have forests. We can’t eliminate that. The weather, we can’t control.”
The specialized crew, however, is working to remove deadwood, prune the branches up a couple of metres from the ground and create some distance between trees to try and reduce the risk of wildfires in their communities.
“We’re never going to be able to stop it,” he said. “But can we slow it down so at least it can be manageable?