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Canadians unprepared for wildfires, despite known mitigation measures: study

Extreme weather events have been a regular occurrence in Canada this year.

From the rapid fire spreading across the country every summer to the devastating floods that often follow, researchers in Canada are sounding the alarm about why communities continue to be caught unprepared, despite scientists warning the frequency of these events is only likely to increase due to climate change.

Communities across the country face significant barriers to implementing climate resilient infrastructure, according to a new study published in the Fire Safety Journal. Professor Eric Kennedy, co-author of the study by York University, says through a scoping review of existing research they found scientists have already discovered how to reduce the impact of wildfires on communities — but there’s a lack of communities taking that information and turning it into action.

“We know how to address the fire problem from a technical standpoint. And so what is it that we need to do to actually take action on that?” he said.

To determine this, Kennedy says researchers sifted through 19,000 articles, until they could whittle the focus group to about 80 articles. Those 80 articles, published within the last decade on the topic of barriers to implementation, ended up being the focus group to determine the results of the study, Kennedy said. This is the first time a review of this kind has been done, he added.

Through this review, Kennedy says a number of themes emerged to explain why communities continue to be caught unprepared by extreme weather. These included connection to land, such as how long someone has lived in a specific place and whether they’re a full or part-time resident, perceived effectiveness of resilience measures, financial and physical feasibility.

“Sometimes (these measures) can be expensive, complicated or physically demanding things to do. To get up on a ladder and clear off your roof and eavestroughs, or to be able to afford a new roof,” he said.

Collaboration, maintenance key to disaster preparedness

But Kennedy says these measures aren’t out of reach for many communities.

“This is a place where we can make practical interventions through helping people to afford or to be able to put into place these kinds of measures to reduce their risk,” he said.

One of the most neglected pieces of this preparedness puzzle is simply maintenance, Kennedy says. He says while mitigation is a great first step, communities need to have the capacity to maintain the measures they’ve implemented — and that needs to be addressed prior to implementation.

“Looking at ways to improve the capacity of people or communities to maintain the intervention over time is really important,” he said.

Additionally, Kennedy says prevention measures can’t solely be based in educational messages, without clear steps to make that information actionable.

“If that’s not accompanied by some support in terms of making them viable and doable. That’s another problem,” he said.

Insurance companies can also play a big role in helping communities become more resilient to extreme weather, Kennedy said, as a way to write off some of the costs of implementing these resilience measures. He said he’d like to see insurance companies act as partners to communities looking to become more resilient, instead of just waiting for a large payout to come through.

“Sometimes there’s pressure to just build back in the same way with the same vulnerabilities,” he said. “So that theme of finding new partners and new collaborators is really important.”

Due to the indiscriminate nature of fire, Kennedy says communities really need to bond together to protect their homes, municipalities and regions.

“When one home goes up in flames, the flames, the embers… from that house can sometimes be what ignites the next. And so it certainly is more than just one individual getting ready,” he said.

“This really does have to be a whole community effort. Because when you help improve the readiness of your property to wildfire, you’re actually helping to protect your neighbor too.”

Ultimately, this is a systemic problem that isn’t going away anytime soon and is going to need intervention by policymakers is any real change is going to be made. Especially, Kennedy says, as the housing crisis in Canada continues to grow.

“We know the impact that climate change is having on fires that can make the seasons longer, more intense. And we’ve seen tragic illustrations of that,” he said.

“Where we build our homes, where people are moving, the need to build so much more housing across Canada, for instance, is going to be a big challenge, because we need to make sure that growth in housing is done in a disaster prepared kind of way.”

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