With the rise in wildfires across British Columbia, many residents in the UBC lands are concerned about a fire in Pacific Spirit Regional Park, since we all live, work, and learn close by.
“It would be a disaster,” says Jolanta Aleksejuniene, a Wesbrook resident. “The forest is a big thing for us.”
Aleksejuniene’s concerns are shared by many, including the university neighbourhood’s elected officials. The good news is local and city officials are paying attention, and they’re making efforts to assess the forest’s health and the potential risks of an inferno.
“We know there is extreme risk, especially in the summer when it is really dry,” says Jen McCutcheon, the director for Electoral Area A of Metro Vancouver, which includes the UBC campus lands and the park.
The risk, however, of an out-of-control fire is low since the forest is relatively damp.
“It’s not a tinderbox,” says Richard Wallis, the operations supervisor for the parks branch of Metro Vancouver, which owns and manages the park. “The forest is still quite healthy.”
The B.C. Wildfire Service has developed a risk assessment tool, the Wildland Urban Interface Risk Class, that assesses the likelihood of a fire in an area and its consequences. Last updated in 2021, it rates Pacific Spirit at the lowest risk level.
But while the risk of a serious fire in Pacific Spirit is relatively low, the climate is changing with hotter and drier summers, and there are more days with high and extreme danger ratings, Wallis says.
A park’s location is an important consideration in assessing risk. One factor that reduces the risk of an out-of-control fire in Pacific Spirit is the park’s location. It’s hardly remote and has good road access, meaning responders can put out most fires while they are still small.
But fires do happen, which is why authorities have extensive plans on how to respond.
On the UBC lands, the response and coordination for any fire, big or small, is the responsibility of a network of agencies and organizations, which McCutcheon says can be a jurisdictional challenge.
“It’s all over the map,” she says, but all the players “work very collaboratively on emergency planning.”
Metro Vancouver is responsible for emergency planning and preparedness, but there are regular meetings on emergency management that involve all the major players. They include Metro Emergency Services, Metro Parks, UBC, the University Neighbourhoods Association, and the University Endowment Lands manager.
Complicating the jurisdictional challenge, there are also other players.
Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services, an agency of the City of Vancouver, is responsible for preventing and fighting fires on all the UBC lands and Pacific Spirit Park. The Vancouver School Board is responsible for school grounds on UBC lands. The province is responsible for major roads, evacuation routes, and the wildfire service. The minister of municipal affairs appoints the endowment lands manager.
For most small fires in the park—which includes the cliffs around Wreck Beach—Vancouver Fire responds. There have been three fires in the last five years where Vancouver Fire or the provincial wildfire service has been called in.
In 2021, the wildfire service was involved putting out a one-hectare fire near the residence of the UBC president between Trails 4 and 6 leading to Wreck Beach. That has been the largest fire so far, but it was relatively small compared to the overall size of the park, which covers 860 hectares or 8.6 square kilometres—twice the size of Stanley Park.
In the event of large fire requiring an evacuation, response gets more complex, McCutcheon says. Metro Vancouver, working with UBC, the UNA, and the endowment lands administration, would look after the response and coordinate operations through an emergency command centre.
If a fire in the park risks putting lives in danger, there are plans for evacuation along several possible routes, including 16th Avenue, Marine Drive, and University and Chancellor boulevards.
Because wildfires are hard to predict, Wegland Sit, the UNA operations manager, says it’s difficult to say in advance what route might be best. The assumption is that a wildfire would not close all the exit points, so if a serious fire were to occur, the best route out could be identified.
UBC residents can prepare for a wildfire by signing up for emergency alerts. Communication about a fire in the park and possible evacuation would be communicated to residents through these emergency alerts.
UBC uses two alert systems. The first is Alertable, a mass public alert system using a smartphone app, SMS, email, or phone alert to notify users. Alertable covers Metro Vancouver, including the UBC lands. The second system is UBC Alert, a system specifically for UBC. Those who haven’t yet signed up are urged to do.
While the possibility of a wildfire may be frightening, residents and park visitors play a role in prevention. “All the fires have been caused by either campfires or smoking,” Wallis says.
So, when visiting the park, be sure to follow the no-smoking and no-campfire rules. Those rules, set by a Metro Vancouver bylaw, apply year-round, not just when the fire risk is high. And the penalty for violation is a stiff $500 fine.
The rules also cover Wreck Beach, which is a popular part of Pacific Spirit. The most significant fires in the past five years have been on the cliffs above the beach. “Most are typically started on the beach and work up the hill,” Wallis explains.
While having a campfire on Wreck Beach might seem like a good way for beachgoers to spend a relaxing evening, it can lead to wildfires in the forest, especially in the summer when it is drier.
Park visitors should also be on the lookout for fires, and if you see one, call 9-1-1. That way, fire services can be called before a fire gets out of hand.
Fire prevention starts with the community. Residents and visitors alike play a role in preventing fires in Pacific Spirit.
“We care for the forest,” Aleksejuniene says.
AMIE BERNAERDT IS A SECOND-YEAR STUDENT AT UBC WITH PLANS TO MAJOR IN CREATIVE WRITING OR ANTHROPOLOGY. SHE LIVES IN WESBROOK PLACE.
Emergency alert systems:
UBC/UNA emergency resources:
- UBC Preparedness Guide for Neighbours. Copies are available at both UNA community centres.
- More information on personal preparedness from UBC can be found here.
For any questions about wildfire preparedness and emergency response for the UBC lands, Jen McCutcheon can help: firstname.lastname@example.org.