By Laura Keil
Two graduate students studying wildfire attitudes and response in the Robson Valley will be sharing findings, observations and policy recommendations with locals over the next week as a way to give back to the communities they’ve been studying for more than a year.

James Whitehead, a Masters student at UNBC, says they’ve come away with a lot of feedback from community members and those working in firefighting agencies. He paired up with University of Leeds PhD candidate Ivan Villaverde Canosa, to look at attitudes across the valley towards wildfire risk among other wildfire questions.

One observation from their surveys is that the Robson Valley is quite exposed to fires originating elsewhere. The stakes are especially high in the agriculturally-rich areas such as Dunster and McBride where the need for refrigeration (ie. reliable power) is high and where smoke from wildfires could be a big deterrent in tourist-heavy areas like Valemount.
Whitehead says many people they interviewed brought up a shift over the past 20-30 years in the way wildfires are fought. In the late 90s, early 2000 BC switched to a professional fire suppression model.

“The previous model, there was a lot more involvement with, like forestry contractors, local loggers, and you sort of hear the stories of people being pulled out of bars, which I mean, that’s a long time beforehand, but as BC got more professional, which has happened pretty much globally, there’s been less and less involvements with community members and foresters and loggers in firefighting, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But it was brought up a lot as a common point of frustration as people weren’t sure how they could be involved or how they could participate in fighting fire and protecting the community.”
He says it’s something seen provincially with big fires where community members defy evacuation orders to try to save their properties.

“It’s led to a lot of tensions and made things complicated between the Wildfire Service and residents.”

In other words, there’s less connection or integration between firefighters and residents. But what remains is a sense of mutual support in small communities.

“There’s a huge can-do attitude and a culture of helping out neighbours and communities. That has been shown over and over again in previous research to be a huge factor in communities being able to better adapt and withstand environmental changes and environmental hazards.”

He says a potential question from the research is how rapidly changing demographics and a lot of turnover and residents, how will it affect that same community culture.

Another area that came up a lot, especially in talking to some of the policymakers was how difficult it is to do any sort of large scale mitigation or larger scale projects, because of the different jurisdictions throughout the Robson Valley.

“The mix between private land and Crown land, and how the Regional District is responsible for emergencies but has very little ability to do anything on Crown land “¦ and then along those same lines is also accounting for indigenous values, which often don’t fit neatly into our emergency management priorities.”

He said it’s very difficult to get all three or four groups on site and ready to fund something and work on one big project.

“That came up over and over again, talking to policymakers. That’s been kind of a common hindrance.”

Another observation made by some is that changes to the local economy have affected the way in which communities in the Robson Valley are affected by fire as well as able to respond to fire.

“So in the sense that a community that’s less dependent on forestry is maybe slightly less economically vulnerable to a fire right nearby, but also has less capacity to fight a fire if there’s less forestry around.”

As far as policy recommendations, Whitehead says they plan to encourage the implementation of a wildfire champion or coordinator to build support for fire suppression in the community.

“Someone just to build, work informally and build support for community fire risk reduction, and to get to neighbours and to just be that point person within the community. A lot of times people talked about not necessarily knowing where they could get information or not knowing where they should, what they could do.”

He says improving communication is another big thing – better communicating the rights, responsibilities, opportunities and restrictions into what you can do on your own property in terms of mitigating your own fire hazard.

“What’s effective, what’s not?”

He has been working with RDFFG Area H director Dannielle Alan on a home wildfire sprinkler program to help get more properties better protected.

Whitehead says they chose the Robson Valley partly because in previous years it hadn’t had any terrible wildfires that have damaged private property and because this area could become more prone to wildfires in the future.

Whitehead has worked as a provincial wildfire firefighter for the past seven years. His research questions sprung from his experience seeing how different people and communities responded to wildfires and he wondered what kind of things affected their attitudes – everything from how concerned they were to how much preparation they did, to whether or not they would evacuate if ordered to.

The pair plan to share more about their findings at upcoming public meetings. The presentations will include their wildfire research in the Valley, an overview of fire smart principals and a look at the new fire sprinkler program in Tete Jaune, Dunster and McBride.

The meeting times are as follows.
Dunster – June 5th, 7pm (Dunster Community Hall)
TÔªte Jaune – June 6th 7pm (TÔªte Jaune Community Hall)
McBride – June 7th, 7pm (Robson Valley Community Centre)
Dome Creek – June 8th, 7pm (Dome Creek Community Centre)
Those wanting more information can also visit