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'Tremendous interest' in fire protection program following historic Alberta wildfires

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Nearly a year ago, Cheryl Harris watched her home and business burn.

She runs Pembina River Tubing south of Entwistle.

She was evacuated from her home days earlier and on May 5, 2023 she was at her son’s watching an encroaching wildfire on surveillance cameras.

“I didn’t want to watch but I couldn’t stop watching,” Harris recalled during a recent interview with CTV News Edmonton.

“I was looking south and I saw the fire coming and I saw the water bombers coming across trying to do something with that fire. But the wind was so strong that day, nothing was going to stop it.”

The fire destroyed the building she and her husband lived in, as well as the tube rental office and storage area, nearly 700 tubes and the stairs down to the river.

“It’s kind of devastating because our whole lives are right here,” she said.

The remains of Cheryl Harris' home on the Pembina River Tubing site on May 9, 2023. (CTV News Edmonton)The damage shuttered the business in 2023 but this year the owners are starting over.

“We need to rebuild the compound and buy some new tubes because all the tubes went up, obviously, with the fire,” Harris said.

“We only have a few tubes this year, 230, so we have to do by reservation only for the tubes.”

Trestle Creek Wildfire was human caused

The fire that turned Harris’ life upside down was called the Range Road 70 or Trestle Creek Wildfire.

An investigation found that staff at the Trestle Creek Golf Resort started it about six months prior.

They were burning brush that smouldered through the winter and on April 29, 2023, strong winds caused it to spread.

“We lost three properties and there were some outbuildings and things like that, but lots of fence line,” said Parkland County fire chief Brian Cornforth.

“The cost of fighting those wildfires, for the overall operation, was up around $12 million.”

The Trestle Creek Wildfire captured the day it started on April 29, 2023. (CTV News Edmonton)A third-party review of Parkland County’s response gave it high marks for ramping up emergency efforts quickly and for public transparency.

It also recommended investing more in public education and preparedness.

Focusing on prevention

In mid-April, the county declared one of its earliest fire bans ever due to dry conditions.

The municipality has also been promoting a program called FireSmart which educates homeowners about fire prevention.

“We're getting more and more residents that, after the wildfire last year, they're starting to look at their properties realizing that this can happen in their backyard,” said Parkland County’s FireSmart coordinator Kyle Sherman.

Sherman is a formally trained FireSmart assessor who identifies risks on private properties and offers recommendations on making them more resistant to wildfire.

“A big thing we tell people to look for is, in the fall, as those leaves are starting to fall and accumulate near your home, that's where you’ve really got to focus,” said Sherman.

“That's where the wind naturally pushes everything so that's where those embers are going to come for (sic).”

Embers the biggest risk to homes

An estimated 90 per cent of homes damaged or destroyed by wildfire are ignited by embers, according to Alberta FireSmart.

FireSmart assessor Kyle Sherman visits a Parkland County home to make fire resiliency recommendations on April 10, 2024. (CTV News Edmonton)Sherman recommends regularly clearing out areas where leaves build up, such as eavestroughs and under decks, and moving firewood away from your home.

“Another place to look at is bark mulch. A lot of people have bark mulch right up against the home. It’s really nice for gardens but the problem is, with that bark mulch, it's wood and as it dries out, those embers can land in there, sit and smoulder.”

FireSmart assessors also recommend long-term improvements such as replacing wood decks and vinyl siding.

“That's something that we don't expect someone to replace immediately. Those are down the road when you go to replace them,” Sherman said.

Parkland County residents can book a free on-site assessment online.

Growing interest in fire protection

The province says fire departments have completed six times as many FireSmart assessments this year compared to the same time last year.

And it says in the coming weeks it is offering a dozen training workshops, with more requests coming in on a weekly basis.

“There is tremendous interest in the Advanced FireSmart Home Assessment program this year,” said provincial FireSmart specialist Laura Stewart.

The result of a wildfire season that saw a record 2.2 million hectares of land burned.

The grass was kept cut low at Pembina River Tubing and Harris believes that saved the business’ specialized buses and porta potties.

Pembina River Tubing's specialized buses were spared by wildfire damage in May of 2023. (CTV News Edmonton)“It could have been worse. It could have been a lot worse. And you know, I just have to stay positive.”

Harris and her husband plan to have the business back up and running by the May long weekend.

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