How wildfires in the North made the fire safety standards we all use today

This #WildfireCommunityPreparednessDay, thank the boreal forests and Indigenous Nations of N.W.T.

It’s wildfire season and May 5 is Wildfire Community Preparedness Day.

Across Canada, community members and homeowners are encouraged to be fire aware and fire adapted. How? One of the most effective ways is actually pretty simple: Clear up dead branches, pine needles and flammable stuff like brooms and propane tanks from around your home — regularly. The national organization that helps deliver this home-saving advice is called FireSmart (you can read more about the tips here and here).

But how did they come up with this stuff? To test how fire behaves around homes and neighbourhoods, you need fire. Lots of it. And what better place to light giant wildfires for the sake of science than the boreal forests of the Northwest Territories.

I spoke with Greg Nyuli, who was chief of the Deh Gah Got’ie Dene council in Fort Providence, N.W.T. during the 1990s. He was at an international wildfire conference for boreal nations when scientists made their pitch for International Crown Fire Modelling Experiments. The Deh Gah Gotie Dene knew the perfect place: a forest surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped bog (“The last thing we wanted to do was start a big wildfire!” Nyuli said). To make the most of the series of test fires, a whole bunch of international organizations were involved, including NASA, the U.S. Forest Service and a number of companies developing flame retardant materials. They were able to test their theories about wildfire behaviour with real forest fire flames, creating the standards for home and firefighter safety we use today.

“We helped set the stage and the site to be experimented upon,” he explains. “I think our community was very pleased to be a part of this,” he says, adding, “I’m just glad the fire never got away!”

See it for yourself

Jack Cohen was a lead fire science researcher with the U.S. Forest Service at the time of the experiments. He’s “the guy” behind many of the wildfire safety standards we all use today. He explains in this old-school but very useful video how, counterintuitively, flames can actually be quite close to a home and not ignite it. What are way more likely to ignite your home are “fire brands” or embers that fly in blizzards. They then gather on roof tops and gutters and light stuff like dead pine needles on fire. In other words: tiny embers are actually more destructive to homes and communities than flames in trees. “We got a lot of really good data,” explains Nyuli, former chief of a key Indigenous N.W.T. partner behind the experiments. “We found the embers would go a long, long way, embers were flying 600 feet.” [end]

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