by John Boivin
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice
New construction in the Regional District of Central Kootenay may soon have to meet higher standards to protect homes and buildings from the danger of wildfire.
The RDCK is developing a new permitting process to encourage – and enforce – better protection of new developments from wildfires.
“The engagement process we’re going through is in the hopes of crafting something that is pragmatic, that is actually useful and can be applied without too much barrier in the community,” says Jamie McEwan, senior local government advisor with Urban Systems, a Kelowna-based consulting company. He hosted a public meeting on the subject last week.
“Crafting something that can mitigate wildfires in an easy-to-access way, that adds value to the community experience.”
That “something” is the Wildfire Development Permit Area (WDPA), a set of policies and guidelines for new projects in the RDCK. Planner Corey Scott agreed the regional government was taking a pragmatic approach to implementing new rules.
“The intent of this is to build wildfire resilience,” he said. “If it’s seen as onerous on property owners, it’s not really great for anyone.
“But at the same time, we can’t water it down so much it doesn’t [meet] the intent anymore to build that wildfire resilience.”
To that end, the RDCK is monitoring public feedback carefully, and planning a ‘soft’ rollout of the new rules. A bylaw will be developed to allow for Wildfire Development Permits to be issued in all parts of the RDCK, but each individual electoral area will decide if, when and how to adopt the WDPA procedure.
“This approach recognizes that some areas may wish to implement the Wildfire Development Permit Area immediately as part of this initiative,” says an RDCK website on the subject, “while other areas may not have a desire for a Wildfire Development Permit Area at this point in time, or might find it more suitable to delay implementation and revisit the topic as part of upcoming [Official Community Plan] reviews.”
How it works
A Wildfire Development Permit would address issues like the kinds of materials builders should use to reduce fire risk (a metal roof vs. cedar shingles, for instance), the placement of buildings on a property, and landscaping. New construction, renovations, and subdivisions within the Wildfire Development Permit Area would be required to meet the development permit area guidelines.
“Our communities and homes are in close proximity to large, forested areas and strong winds during wildfires can spread embers and wildfires quickly,” says a page on the subject on the RDCK website. “With longer fire seasons and more frequent extreme weather events occurring as a result of climate change, the potential of wildfire risk is increasing.”
Existing developments are not covered by the WDPA, and the program is meant to complement, not replace, FireSmart and other programs that aim at increasing protection for existing infrastructure.
McEwan promised the new guidelines being drawn up will be “clear and transparent,” and based on an analysis of best management practices and community feedback.
He also said research shows such rules don’t add a lot to the cost of development.
“Obviously that’s going to be a consideration, especially now when we’re seeing construction costs increase so much,” he says. “But our preliminary research to date identifies that the costs are very minimal, if not basically the same.”
The WDPA is becoming a more common tool for local governments. The City of Nelson already has one, as does the Regional District of East Kootenay. The Village of Kaslo also suggested this month implementing a WDPA in their draft Official Community Plan, though that is seen as a more ‘educational’ tool than restrictive.
The consultants said they’d be studying how the permit has been implemented in those and other regions as they draw up the RDCK’s version.
McEwan said the idea wasn’t just being pushed by local governments, but that the market was driving the need for such permitting.
“Those who are buying new homes and going to home builders are actually requesting they use wildfire mitigation tools in building [their] home – the siding, the roofing, the type of windows or even talking to the landscaping company…” he says. “So the market seems to be driving a little of this and it’s actually complementary to where the local governments are looking to go, and move the dial on this issue.”
The online workshop Aug. 17 only drew about a half-dozen members of the public, but it’s not the end of the consultation process. Urban Systems plans more survey work, feedback sessions and community input before presenting their findings and proposed bylaw, likely later this fall. The RDCK board would begin its debates on adopting the new initiative in the new year.
An online survey on the issue is open until Sept. 5. Find the link to the survey on the RDCK website at rdck.bc.ca.
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