BANFF – The Town of Banff will subsidize roof sprinkler kits to give firefighters a better chance of saving homes in a wildfire disaster.
The new program would subsidize the kits for homes with combustible roofs or those in higher-risk areas of town at 50 per cent of the $125 wholesale cost – estimated to cost taxpayers $6,250 in 2023, $6,563 in 2024 and $6,891 in 2025 for 100 kits a year.
Silvio Adamo, Banff’s fire chief and director of protective services, said rooftop sprinklers are used as one of many tactics when getting ready to fight an advancing wildfire, but this can take a significant amount of time and people-power to execute and is only used when resources and time permits.
“Embers are what ignites most structures and then when one structure goes it ignites others next to it, and then we have potential for what we call a conflagration to occur that destroy entire neighbourhoods, which is what we saw in Fort McMurray,” he said.
“A roof is typically the largest exposed area of a structure that is unfortunately ideally designed and located to catch fire embers… it’s a big risk to a structure and you’ve heard me many times before call it a catcher’s mitt for embers.”
There are an estimated 227 combustible roofs identified in the Banff townsite, down from 327 prior to the start of a financial incentive program introduced by the municipality in 2017 to replace combustible roofs.
The program offers a $900 rebate per home and per half duplex to residents whose homes have an unrated combustible roof system, but the program has annual capacity limits. Council plans to review the current combustible roof program in 2023.
Adamo said the cost of replacing combustible roofs even with the incentive program may be out of reach for some residents.
“We obviously appreciate our residents and their timing in replacing their roofs so this could be seen as a stop-gap measure if residents want to get involved in this program,” he said.
Adamo said the ideal is to have no combustible roofs in the community and does worry some residents may rely on the sprinkler system instead of replacing their roof.
“The other side of it is obviously $12,000 or $13,000 to replace your combustible roof, which may not be attainable for some residents,” he said.
“But by setting up these sprinklers you are protecting your roof structure if it’s wet down prior to embers landing on it, and there’s far less ability for it to ignite.”
The biggest fire threat to the Banff townsite comes from the west or southwest, where the forest is older and thicker.
Effects of climate change on temperature, precipitation levels, and soil moisture are turning many forests into kindling and fires are expected to burn more frequently, with more intensity and become increasingly unpredictable.
The last several years have seen record wildfire seasons in North America, with neighbouring British Columbia experiencing widespread fire activity in 2021 with drought conditions earlier than usual and a string of punishing heat waves.
In May 2016, the wildfire that began southwest of Fort McMurray swept through the community, forcing the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta’s history, with upwards of 88,000 people forced from their homes and about 2,400 buildings burnt to the ground.
Coun. Chip Olver voiced strong support for the rooftop sprinkler incentive program.
“The greatest risk and consequence that we have of danger to our community is wildfire,” she said.
“Any one home that could be lost by fire has a tremendous impact financially and in many other ways on the family involved, but one home can lead to a whole neighbourhood, and I think this is a small amount of money to pay for the safety of our community.”
Under the new program, which could start as early as March, a rooftop sprinkler would be provided to homeowners that currently have a combustible roof as well as homeowners that are in a wildfire interface area, such as Middle Springs neighbourhoods.
To be eligible for the program, homeowners would be required to have a FireSmart home assessment conducted by one of the Banff Fire Department’s qualified members. The assessment would include the recommended placement of the sprinkler kit.
Installation of the sprinkler kit would be the responsibility of the homeowner.