The fire that devastated Fort McMurray, burning 10 per cent of the city, was so enormous, it produced lightning strikes that gave momentum to its progress.
Veteran emergency responders say they have never seen a forest fire spread so widely and move so fast.
Conditions played a part. The forests in northeast Alberta are tinder dry, and for the first few days, strong winds propelled the conflagration forward. Flames leaped from treetop to treetop, defying traditional firefighting techniques and subsiding only when a major river or lake stood in the way. Even then, the holdup was often temporary. It is not at all clear what, other than days of soaking rain, will ultimately halt the fire.
The question must be asked: Could something like this happen in the Greater Victoria area? We tend to think of our community as a mixture of urban neighbourhoods, parks and agricultural lands.
At least part of the problem in Fort McMurray is that the city is surrounded by fire-prone boreal forests. Don Forgeron, CEO of the Insurance Bureau of Canada, says officials across the country should say no to developments in areas at risk of fire or flooding.
If such development is allowed, says Forgeron, steps should be taken to mitigate risks before building begins.
The capital region is not at the same risk as Fort McMurray, but there are still significant stands of forest in our midst. There are more than 500 hectares of Garry oak in our region’s core. And perhaps another 5,000 hectares of mixed conifer and deciduous forest can be found in the Prospect Lake area, on Mount Douglas, at Bear Mountain and along stretches of our coastline.
While these woodlands are tiny in comparison to the forested area that surrounds Fort McMurray, they do pose a threat. Most, if not all, are in close proximity to residential neighbourhoods — indeed, they often form the boundary of those neighbourhoods. Any fire that got started would have only a short distance to travel before we had a calamity on our hands.
Is it conceivable that a forest fire could wreak havoc here similar to that which happened in Fort McMurray?
Local fire departments say no. They point out that our forested areas are a mix of coniferous and deciduous trees, with the latter acting as a retardant.
They note also the lakes in the capital region that would provide a more-than-adequate supply of water in any prolonged battle. And they point to the reciprocal agreements between municipalities, whereby if one fire department is overstretched, others will come to its aid.
A fair balancing of the risks, then, suggests it is unlikely we might suffer the kind of damage Fort McMurray has seen.
But we are not entirely free of threat. Weather forecasters are predicting an unusually dry summer across Vancouver Island.
Local fires could inflict significant harm before they were contained. That leaves some of the responsibility in the hands of individual residents.
Forest fires spread to adjacent houses in two ways. If there is a supply of dry grass or shrubs on the ground beside a residence, that forms an avenue of attack for the fire.
Alternately, if gutters are full of dry pine needles, or a house is capped with cedar shakes, that allows the fire to jump from roof to roof.
The best defence is to remove these dangers in advance. Clean up dry ground cover, keep gutters free of flammable material and trim any tree branches closer than two metres to the ground. And don’t put a cedar-shake roof on your house.
These measures won’t stop a fire once it’s in full stride, but they will either prevent it getting started or slow it until emergency responders arrive.