FireSmart programs chip away at a growing problem

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Good yard maintenance each spring helps to reduce wildland fire fuels


By Tara Bergeson, City of Kelowna’s Urban Forestry Supervisor and Local FireSmart™ Representative | May 8, 2023

It was twenty years ago that the devastating Okanagan Mountain Park fire ripped through over 25,000 hectares of land in our city’s southeast, forcing the evacuation of more than 27,000 people and destroying 239 homes. While historically significant, since that time wildland fires have become an increasingly influential event throughout the province, in terms of size, severity, and frequency. Most recently in our region, the White Rock Lake fire in 2021 grew to over 81,000 ha.

Okanagan residents have learned a lot since the summer of 2003, and more preventative measures to protect our homes from wildfire are being taken across the city than ever before. And with more knowledge comes more responsibility; as fire prevention often starts in our own backyards.  

BC’s FireSmart™ program aims to support wildfire preparedness, prevention and mitigation for communities. The program targets seven disciplines: education, vegetation management, legislation and planning, development considerations, interagency cooperation, emergency planning and cross-training. To support FireSmart™ initiatives and other wildland fire management activities, the province funds the Community Resiliency Investment program through the Union of BC Municipalities. The City of Kelowna has taken advantage of this program annually to support wildland fire risk reduction in our community, and has completed activities such as:

  • Fuel mitigation projects at multiple higher risk locations across the municipality, including Southeast Kelowna, Knox Mountain Park and McKinley area
  • A pilot targeted grazing project at Field Road in conjunction with BC Cattlemen’s Association and Ministry of Forests which involved 50 cows deployed to a strategic area of Crown land to reduce fine fuels, like grasses and small wood debris
  • Improving policies, guidelines and best practices within the City of Kelowna
  • Creation of a FireSmart™ Demonstration Garden in Kelowna along with landscaping enhancements to remove highly flammable material from the site at Summit & Dilworth Drive
  • Development and update of the Community Wildfire Resiliency Plan (CWRP), a strategic planning document to guide annual wildland risk reduction

One of the most significant actions we’ve taken recently here in Kelowna, is the implementation of an annual FireSmart™ Community Chipping Program. For many years, the Kelowna Fire Department was receiving inquiries from residents who were concerned about the highly flammable landscaping in the backyards. We found there were no free resources to help people remove large quantities of this material.  Many people don’t have a vehicle large enough to remove the debris and hiring a company to remove everything can get expensive. We discovered our residents needed to understand what materials are hazardous versus not, and how could they remove these materials effectively? That’s where this program steps in.

In 2022 alone, the FireSmart™ Community Chipping program, which began as a pilot targeting eight specific neighbourhoods in Kelowna, removed nearly 100 metric tonnes of flammable material (picture the size of a 757 aircraft!).

The chipping program offers free curbside removal and chipping of highly flammable plant and shrub materials to Kelowna homeowners. The program helps eliminate one of the biggest risks to home fires, the home landscaping that fuels the embers into a fire. According to FireSmart™ BC, 50 per cent of home fires caused by wildfires are started by embers.  

Embers that fly through the sky from forest fires have a greater risk of reaching homes than the fires themselves, especially areas with older landscaping containing highly flammable plants and shrubs such as cedars and junipers.

If we can save one house from a fire, the return in offering this pickup service is well worth it. Not just in how much a house is worth, but we can also save lives and a home where a family has special memories and valuables.

One of the most rewarding parts of my role as Kelowna’s FireSmart™ consultant is hearing from residents who feel this program has removed barriers for them in making their property FireSmart, like this participant who shared her thoughts via email:

Thank you for creating the community chipping program. It would have taken years of biweekly green-bin loads to rid our neglected yard of juniper and pine debris…I hope the community chipping program will continue. 

Image of materials being picked up for chipping in 2022Photo of flammable material collected during the pilot year of the chipping program. 

Homeowners have a vitally important role to play when it comes to wildfire mitigation, and the FireSmart™ Community Chipping Program is a key way to support that. The FireSmartTM Homeowners Manual is also a handy resource which is packed with information to help FireSmart™ your property, including tips like these:

  • Dead pine needles are fuel. Keep them off your roof, out of your gutters and away from the foundation of your house.
  • Prune your trees, removing all live and dead branches (up to 2.5 meters from the ground), taking no more than 30 per cent of live, green canopy.
  • Trim back branches that are hanging over your roof and then clear your roof of leaf or needle litter.
  • Keep your lawn mowed and watered, as fire moves quickly through dry grass and weeds.
  • Store firewood and any other combustible fuel at least 10 metres from your house, especially during fire season.
  • If you’re replacing your roof, choose a Class A or fire-resistant product. Your roof is the most vulnerable part of your house in a wildfire because of its large size and susceptibility to flying embers (firebrands).

 Learn more about our latest FireSmart™ initiatives and about the annual community chipping program at

Tara Bergeson is the City of Kelowna Urban Forestry Supervisor and Local FireSmart™ Representative and has been part of the City’s Parks team for over five years. She is passionate about wildland fire management and working to reduce risk throughout the City of Kelowna.

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