Canada, home to roughly nine per cent of the world’s forests, is where black bears, moose and other wildlife live out their natural lives. Outdoor enthusiasts kayak on both quiet rivers and raging rapids alike while parents and kids go on family outings, armed with everything from sleeping bags to marshmallows. But it is also in this idyllic setting where a parched leaf lying in the summer sun ignites, or a careless camper who forgets to fully extinguish the last embers from breakfast can set off a raging wildfire that devastates communities.
In a country where woodlands comprise much of the landscape, the devastation caused by wildfires is well headlined: forests are destroyed, nearby communities are evacuated and businesses often have to shut down temporarily — perhaps even permanently. The extent of wildfire damage was recently quantified by two faculty members at MacEwan University in Edmonton: Dr. Rafat Alam and Dr. Shahidul Islam estimated that the physical, financial and social devastation wreaked by wildfires that consumed much of the community in and around Fort McMurray in 2016 to be in the vicinity of $8.86 billion and counting.
Early figures from the Insurance Bureau of Canada estimate that “the beast,” as the Fort McMurray wildfire was named, will exceed $3.5 billion — the most expensive natural disaster the insurance sector in this country has ever seen. The oil industry is reported to have lost more than $985 million in the wake of the natural disaster (ironically believed to have been caused by human error), while local businesses are estimated to have sustained net revenue losses of more than $54 million. One third of all property damage was commercial.
While companies cannot account for every desiccated twig or carelessly doused campfire, there are critical steps that they can take to prepare for wildfires and get back up and running once the final flames have been snuffed out. The first and most important step is arming themselves with information and insight on how to respond to such an event, says Robert Gray, a fire ecologist and owner of R.W. Gray Consulting Ltd., in Chilliwack, British Columbia.
“Knowledge is the key,” Gray says. “In the west, all businesses in rural areas are located in wildfire zones.”
The best precaution that employers can take to safeguard employees is to make them aware of the hazards associated with wildfire and keep them apprised of local fire conditions. “As we get closer to fire season, employees should understand the potential for wildfire and how best to react to a wildfire emergency,” he advises.
BEFORE IT RAGES
Kara McCurdy, a fire-prevention officer with the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources in Halifax and a structural firefighter trained to attack fires in individual buildings, says businesses, commercial companies and operators located in or near a forested or grassland environment need to understand the importance of preparing for and mitigating any risk involved in a wildfire.
“Companies can be affected by direct loss due to damaged or destroyed infrastructure. Liability and financial losses may also occur if a company or operator is found responsible for causing wildfires,” she says.
McCurdy recommends that companies start by determining the type and level of risk they face through conducting a risk assessment and consulting with fire-behaviour experts. Also required is a budget that will address specific risks such as managing fuel around the building, structural issues and landscape practices. Proper perimeter care and maintenance can reduce the risk posed by a wildfire dramatically, notes Terry Canning, a volunteer firefighter in Brookfield, Nova Scotia and the province’s former emergency communications coordinator. “A tidy, well-trimmed, fire-resistant structure and property generally will survive a wildland fire,” Canning says.
Companies also need to talk about what they are doing and what needs to be done. Prepare Your Organization for a Wildfire Playbook, a publication developed by the United States’ Federal Emergency Management Agency’s PrepareAthon — a grassroots campaign to increase community preparedness and resilience for disasters — suggests that a “preparedness discussion” be included on staff-meeting agendas and as a lunch-and-learn session.
These conversations should also discuss the potential impact of wildfires, the terms — advisories, watches and warnings — that will be used to describe changing fire conditions and the organization’s emergency communications plans and policies. It is also important to reinforce the five Ps of evacuation: people, prescriptions, papers, personal needs and priceless items.
Having an evacuation plan in place for staff is crucial and may be legally mandated. For example, occupational health and safety regulations in British Columbia require employers to have emergency preparedness and response procedures in place.
“This includes conducting a risk assessment in any workplace in which a need to rescue or evacuate workers may arise,” says Patrick Davie, manager of prevention field services at WorkSafeBC in Kamloops.
Evacuation plans must specify where employees will gather, include contact lists and pinpoint the location of a back-up centre if the business provides an essential service. Companies can enhance their emergency-response capability by providing local fire and emergency services with a detailed map of the premises both inside and outside the structure and identifying onsite hazards. It is also important to ensure that the roadways and bridges leading to the worksite are rated for heavy equipment.
Having a plan is the first step; ensuring that the plan is effective is the second. The PrepareAthon playbook calls on companies to hold a tabletop exercise that leads participants through a simulated disaster scenario and prompts them to examine their plans, policies and procedures without disrupting the work environment. According to the 21-page guide, the tabletop exercise “is an opportunity to identify and resolve problems, improve workplace safety and bolster your organization’s continuity of operations.”
Businesses also need to ensure that they are legally compliant with the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which sets out employers’ obligation to protect workers from health and safety hazards on the job. And that includes taking every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers from wildfires.
“Generally speaking, each province and territory is responsible for the well-being of those employed in their respective jurisdictions and for managing disasters, like wildfires, in cooperation with local authorities,” says Karine Martel, spokesperson for Public Safety Canada in Ottawa.
At the federal level, she adds, Employment and Social Development Canada’s Labour Program is responsible for protecting the rights and well-being of workers and employers. Federally regulated businesses and industries must also abide by the Canada Labour Code and the Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations.
As global warming continues and summers are getting hotter, preparing for a wildfire needs to become rooted in the way of doing business. “When adding to your current business, renovating or building new, you should consider building construction material and purchase flame-resistant products, landscaping materials that are fire-resistant, access to the structure by emergency personnel, proximity of structure to forest stand, water supply, and making sure your business has a clearly defined civic number,” McCurdy recommends.
IN THE HEART OF THE FIRE
Once the fires are burning, businesses need to stay tuned to updates and follow the directions of first responders and emergency measures promptly. If the situation warrants halting operations, employers must evacuate employees and ensure that they are looking after their personal property and homes if it is safe to do so, Canning says. For employees who are off shift, “a courtesy would be to attempt to ensure they are aware of any pending risk,” he adds.
Health concerns will also be paramount during this time, as inhaling smoke can cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat as well as cause headaches and exacerbate allergies, Davie cautions. For healthy workers who are exposed to smoke for a short period of time, symptoms are likely to be temporary and will resolve when the smoke clears.
“For workers with lung diseases or other chronic diseases, symptoms can be more serious, including shortness of breath, persistent coughing, wheezing and increased mucous production,” he adds.
Heat stress is a potential health problem. “If your body heats up faster than it can cool itself, you experience heat stress. This can lead to serious heat disorders and potential injury,” Davie says. Warning signs include excessive sweating, dizziness and nausea.
For staff who work outside, smoke exposure is a real hazard. Employers should reduce the amount of time spent outdoors and keep windows closed for those who work indoors. Decreasing physical activity for outdoor workers is also helpful, and it may be necessary to use respiratory protection if there are moderate to high levels of smoke.
Those who work primarily in vehicles need to keep vents and windows closed and, if available, operate the air conditioning in “recirculate” mode, Davie advises. “Workers should also open the windows occasionally in areas with good air quality to prevent carbon dioxide from building up inside the vehicles.”
There are some things that employees and managers can do to reduce the risk of structural loss in the event that an evacuation order has been issued, McCurdy says. These measures include closing all windows and doors before exiting and making sure that any propane, natural gas and other flammable materials are turned off or secured. Shutting down interior ventilation systems will also reduce the transfer of fire embers through vents.
A designated fire warden to communicate muster locations and ensure staff are evacuated is recommended as well. Getting employees to back into parking spots also makes it quicker and easier to get out if an evacuation notice has been issued. If applicable, exterior lawn-sprinkler systems should be activated to aid fire efforts and protect the property.
Employers may be told that they can return to the workplace before a fire has been fully doused. This is known as the mop-up phase, which begins when a fire has been contained and an initial attack of the blaze is no longer required. During this phase, the greatest risks are falling material, (including rocks and trees), ash pits, burned out stumps full of hot ash and smoke exposure, Gray says. “Situational awareness is the single greatest way to deal with these safety issues.”
Mop-up on interface fires, which refer to fires in areas where urban structures and human development meet the wilderness, also present hazards like emissions from the combustion of homes and businesses. “As the summer heats up, if your business is located near such areas, plan for the potential impact on your business,” Davie advises.
“Safety precautions here need to include breathing apparatus and knowledge of specific hazards,” Gray adds.
In terms of the workplace structure, Davie points out that businesses need to ensure that any fire-damaged building is structurally sound and that no asbestos materials have been disturbed. Other considerations include whether services like power and gas have been restored, are they safe to use and if it is safe for employees to access the facility.
DOWN THE ROAD
Wildfires are a hazard that applies not only to workplaces located near forests out west. In a letter that Gray and two colleagues sent to the British Columbia Premier and Minister of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development last year, the experts stressed the extreme wildfire season that British Columbia experienced in 2017 was not an isolated event.
“It represents the new normal and is part of a global trend of increasing megafires with tremendous social, ecological and economic costs,” the letter notes. “As 2017 — the pinnacle of exceptional fire years — has proven, forests and communities in B.C. are not resilient to wildfire and adaptation is urgently needed. The status quo approach of addressing wildfire threat in B.C. is not working.”
Since Canada started tracking wildfires in the 1970s, the overall number of fires has declined, thanks to better communication, says Richard Carr, a fire research analyst with the Northern Forestry Centre in Edmonton. But approximately 8,000 wildfires still occur each year across Canada. While the number of wildfires has dropped in the last four decades, the area burned has increased. “Global warming is having an effect,” Carr suggests.
Climate-change models are predicting a significant increase in both the annual area burned as well as the intensity and severity of fires. “Much of this has to do with changes to precipitation patterns, increased temperature and longer fire seasons,” Gray explains.
Ironically, as we manage fires better and prevent some fires from happening in the first place, a denser forest with thicker growth and underbrush develops, which leads to more intense fires, Carr notes.
If wildfires are a potential threat to your business, employers can enhance their emergency preparedness by asking the following questions listed in WorkSafeBC’s wildfire evacuation-planning checklist:
- Do you have reliable two-way communication equipment available to ensure workers can be reached at all times?
- Do you keep an up-to-date list of all workers and have it easily available and know the location of all of your workers at all times? (They might include camp cooks, mechanics and people travelling to and from town.)
- Do workers know what to bring with them and what to leave behind?
- What vehicles are used in an evacuation and what are the driving arrangements? A designated seat is needed for each person.
- After an evacuation, how will you account for everyone, and what is your communication plan?
Fighting wildfires is not just gruelling, but dangerous too. Emergency workers often face the same hazards as other forestry workers and more, according to WorkSafeBC. This includes risks associated with areas undergoing development, which can expose firefighting or emergency workers to mobile equipment like excavators or skidders, building trails and moving felled timber.
Dangers also include potential exposure to manual and mechanical tree felling and the burnt trees that remain standing but may not be structurally sound, cautions Patrick Davie, manager of prevention field services with WorkSafeBC. “British Columbia is the only province that requires formalized danger-tree assessments prior to work being conducted near suspect trees,” he notes.
As steep and unstable ground can result in slipping and tripping hazards, changing conditions make it imperative that emergency-response plans be kept current and effective. Conditions like smoke exposure, heat stress and low visibility can also increase risks, particularly for workers who drive vehicles.
“Many workers on fire lines are new and/or young workers, and it is equally important to ensure that they are adequately trained, supervised and coordinated on these potentially multi-employer work sites,” Davie adds.
This article was originally written by Donalee Moulton and published by OHS Canada, Canada’s Occupational Health and Safety Magazine in its July/August 2018 edition.