With summer right around the corner, chances are that Merrittonians are planning ahead of wildfire season to protect their homes and community.

Steven Rempel, lieutenant and FireSmart coordinator with the City of Merritt, sat down with the Herald to talk about wildfire preparedness and the FireSmart program.

“In the last few years, the wildfires are ranking up. There’s more and more fires, they’re more aggressive and essentially it’s here to stay. So we need to kind of learn to work with wildfires and we need to be preparing our properties and being prepared for it,” he said.

According to the FireSmart BC website, the program is founded on seven disciplines – legislation and planning, education, vegetation management, development considerations, emergency planning, training and inter-agency cooperation – that address wildfire preparedness from different angles.

“Together, these disciplines help educate and prepare residents, their homes, neighbourhoods, critical infrastructure and vital natural resources from wildfire,” reads the FireSmartBC website.

Some of the everyday actions that people can take to reduce wildfire risks include making sure the house gutters are cleaned, raking leaves and constantly trying to adopt the FireSmart culture.

“From day to day, being an advocate for it (FireSmart) in every way. So seeing something or just being able to, you know, spread the message every day,” Rempel added. “I always, you know, advise people to make sure they have all that stuff in order ahead of time. So, yes, be prepared. You know we understand that we’re at a high risk, but I think just naturally we all just kind of believe that won’t happen to us.”

Rempel highlighted the role that community involvement plays in the success of the FireSmart program.

“I always say it’s not up to the fire department, it’s not up to the government, it’s not up to a single resident. It’s up to all of us,” he added. “It is supercritical that everyone is looking at this and we’re all working towards that same goal, because if we have one without the other than the program, you know, it suffers.”

A community that is synonymous with FireSmart success is actually not far from Merritt.

“Logan Lake is a huge example of a community who really bought into the program. They’re actually a recognized FireSmart community,” Rempel added. “In the face of their (recent) fire, they are still standing with no structures lost, nobody injured, and that’s largely due to the program.”

On August 13, 2021, Logan Lake was under an evacuation order as the town was threatened by the Tremont Creek wildfire. But thanks to collective and individual efforts made by everyone to FireSmart their community, the town was saved from the wildfire.

In 2013, Logan Lake became the first FireSmart community in Canada to be recognized.

According to the B.C. Wildfire Dashboard, a total of 198 wildfires have been reported between April 1 and June 4, with over 315,000 hectares burned throughout the province.

“I feel like the majority of people believe that type of stuff can’t happen to us. But the truth of the matter is, we are at higher risk than the majority of the province, right? We’re the B.C. Interior. We’re Canada’s only desert. So we’re susceptible to wildfire,” Rempel stated.

Another misconception that people usually have, according to Rempel, is related to the sprinkler systems.

“We like sprinklers. We definitely advocate for them, but the issue that we see quite frequently is people are buying sprinklers that put them up on their home and they feel that that’s it, their home is now protected,” Rempel said. “And they’re missing the rest of the FireSmart component. So if I had to choose, in my own personal home, whether it was FireSmart, or I had sprinklers, I would take FireSmart all day.”

He also reminds that the sprinklers that will help protect people’s homes is one that is designed to work with minimal water and minimal pressure.

“As long as it is a sprinkler that is meant to defend the home against the wildfires, typically it’s going to be designed for low pressures and use not a lot of water,” Rempel added. “They’re an excellent tool, but they’re not the end all be all with the rest of the FireSmart program.”

“It’s really important that they come down every year; they’re cleaned, maintained, tested, and made sure that they’re working before you put them on.”

Merrittonians who wish to learn more about the FireSmart program are also invited to the Wildfire Community Preparedness Day happening on June 22 at Central Park, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“Unfortunately due to the fires last year, we had crews kind of all over the province and we just weren’t able to organize the day. I know we had one the year prior and it was a pretty big hit,” Rempel said. “It’ll be back again (this year).”

Live entertainment, food vendors, face painting, balloons, and different vendors that are geared towards FireSmart will also be present at the event.

“This will just be a staple event where families can come out and have a great day and hopefully walk away with a bit of information and awareness with the FireSmart program.”