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Retired N.S. firefighter calls for better promotion of program designed to prevent wildfire destruction

Retired Halifax firefighter Paul Irving fought his share of fires over 34 years, including wildfires.

Now, in the aftermath of Nova Scotia’s destructive forest fires in both Halifax and Shelburne counties, he's fighting for awareness.

“If you ask 100 people, what FireSmart is, or what they can do or anything like that,” he says, “I'd be surprised if you got one that even understood the concept."

Irving blames provincial and municipal governments for dropping the ball.

Almost 20 years ago, Irving wrote a report for Halifax Fire on the benefits of FireSmart – a national education program, which offers advice on how to protect properties from the ravages of wildfire.

His report, entitled, “FireSmart and HRM” explained the often devastating effects of “Wildland Urban Interface” fires — in areas where forests or trees meet community buildings.

“Most of the major wildland fires,” he wrote, “are stopped by one of two things: a change in weather or running out of fuel. Since we can’t change the weather, the strategy that is used for many wildfires is to address the fuel.”

In his report, Irving recommended carrying FireSmart “into a lifestyle,” for fire departments, homeowners, and developers.

But he says officials didn’t give the program the attention he feels it deserved at the time, or since.

“I think it was the political will wasn't there, to go through and to promote this,” he says, “because there's a lot of ramifications for the municipality, there's a lot of things you have to do, developers wouldn't like it.”

The initiative offers advice to homeowners on how to assess the wildfire risk of their properties and offers solutions to mitigate or even prevent wildfire damage.

Tips include choosing wildfire-resistant building materials and foliage and keeping a 1.5-metre “non-combustible zone” around a home and deck.

For builders and municipalities, it recommends measures such as designing service roads to allow for both outgoing community evacuation and incoming emergency vehicles.

It also advocates for the inclusion of greenbelts in communities to act as firebreaks.

Irving says many of the principles are used by firefighters to assess which properties they can actively try to save and which ones are unsafe to do so.

“If a wildfire is coming towards the area a home is in, one of the things (firefighters) have to do, is triage,” he says, “An expert will look at the area surrounding your home, and if it has enough ‘defensible space’ then we can, not always, but we can make an effort to save your home.”

“If it’s not defensible … we cannot put a crew there because it’s too dangerous to put them there,” he explains.

In British Columbia, 100 neighbourhoods were certified as “FireSmart” as of 2019

In Nova Scotia, which signed on in 2018, there are two “FireSmart” communities: Bear River and Chateau Village.

According to the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables, 40 communities have engaged with the program in that time. Thirteen of those are in the Halifax area.

Thursday, the minister in charge of the department said more municipalities have recently reached out to inquire about the program.

“The unfortunate circumstances around the last few weeks have highlighted these conversations, and we're very willing to have those conversations,” said Tory Rushton. “It certainly should be a program that every municipality looks at … and if it’s a resources matter, then certainly by all means as minister, I’ll talk to the team and see where we need to put resources.”

Anyone who wants a FireSmart assessment can go to their provincial FireSmart page for information. In the Halifax area, a request form is found on the website for Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency.

CTV asked the city of Halifax how many assessments it has done, but didn’t receive a response by end of the day Thursday.

For more Nova Scotia news, visit our dedicated provincial page.

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