03/18/2012 04:30 EDT | Updated 05/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Experts want to bring successful U.S. wildfire prevention program to Canada

EDMONTON - Experts are looking south of the border for ideas on how to better protect municipalities and homes in Canada's forests from being ravaged by wildfires.

In the United States, federal agencies have helped 720 communities in 40 states develop plans to prevent forest, brush and grass fires from destroying property and threatening lives.

A non-profit group wants to use the Firewise Communities USA program as a model for Canada, but warns long-term success will depend on sustained funding from Ottawa.

"Firewise is a hugely successful program. It brings the problems and solutions into the community to identify what people can do to protect against wildfires," said Kelly O'Shea, spokesman for Partners in Protection, a group that includes officials from the Canadian Forest Service, Parks Canada, and provincial governments from B.C. to Ontario.

"The United States is fortunate because they have the funding and they can implement the program. We are trying to do it here on a shoestring budget."

The first Canadian workshop based on the U.S. plan is to be rolled out next weekend at a wildfire conference in Kamloops, B.C. Another is to be held in an Alberta community before the end of summer.

The Canadian version, called FireSmart Canada, is designed to provide a national standard of wildfire prevention planning information to communities and homeowners across the country.

There are tips for municipalities on how to create a plan to clear brush and trees away from buildings, the need to establish fire breaks around communities and how to have a well-thought-out wildfire evacuation strategy.

The Kamloops workshop is to focus on teaching municipal officials and fire chiefs about how to encourage people to protect their own homes and neighbourhoods from wildfire flames.

"The homeowners have to be involved and the communities need to be involved," said Kelly Johnston, wildfire protection co-ordinator for the City of Kamloops.

Johnston said the U.S. program started small with only a handful of communities in 2002 but then quickly took off, thanks to support from federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

He said support from Ottawa will be crucial to the program succeeding in Canada.

"If we don't have a long-term national commitment for funding, the program won't fly."

O'Shea said the threat of dangerous wildfires in Canada is increasing.

Warmer temperatures have dried out forests and the mountain pine beetle and other insects have left dead and dying timber over huge areas. Conditions in Alberta are so dry this year that the province moved up the start of its fire season by one month from April to March.

The problem is exacerbated as communities expand into forested areas, creating the conditions for what experts call "wildland urban interface" fires.

Last May, a fire tore through Slave Lake, Alta., destroying 400 homes and forcing 7,000 people to flee. In 2003 more than 200 homes were destroyed in the area of Kelowna, B.C.

O'Shea said what happened in those fires could happen in many places across the country.

"Slave Lake made the headlines last year but in fact there were huge interface fires happening in Saskatchewan and in southern Manitoba," he said. "There were evacuations throughout northern Ontario."

The Alberta government is to release a report this spring into the conditions that lead to the Slave Lake fire and how it was fought. The report is expected to include recommendations to bolster fire prevention programs.

In December the province announced $1.2 million in grants to communities as part of its own FireSmart program. About one-third of the cash is being spent to remove thousands of trees killed by the pine beetle in a sprawling area surrounding Grande Prairie.

The Partners in Protection Association won't say how much money they are seeking from Ottawa for FireSmart Canada.

O'Shea would only say that the cost of the program would be only a small fraction of what governments pay each year to control and put out wildfires. The preliminary damage estimate for the Slave Lake fire alone is more than $700 million.

"Governments spend millions of dollars every year combating forest fires, not to mention the losses in communities like Slave Lake," he said. "If we can put some money up front to minimize that, to me that just makes huge sense."