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A federal 'no' to building code changes

EDMONTON - A federal commission has rejected proposals to change Canada's national construction codes to better protect communities from destructive wildfires.

The changes would have required builders in areas prone to forest fires to use less flammable building materials, to space buildings farther apart and to keep them clear of trees and vegetation.

"There was no consensus to go forward and put this in the codes. The majority of the provinces said, 'No, you can't put this in the building codes because we couldn't enforce it,'" Philip Rizcallah, acting manager of the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes, said from Ottawa.

"They felt it would be very difficult to go in there and mandate or dictate the type of siding somebody put on their house or the type of tree or shrub that they planted next to their house. They said it would be an absolute nightmare."

The proposal for changes came from the National Fire Protection Association and an Alberta-based non-profit group called Partners in Protection.

The proposals were submitted to the commission before wildfires in May 2011 destroyed hundreds of homes in Slave Lake, Alta., and forced thousands of people to flee. The disaster cost more than $1 billion in damage, firefighting and relief costs.

The commission's members, appointed by the National Research Council, update national building codes every five years. The next round of changes are to go into effect in 2015. The deadline for submissions was Nov. 16.

Rizcallah said the proposed changes fell outside the commission's mandate. He said national codes are meant to prevent a fire on one person's property from damaging another person's property, not to protect property from wildfires.

"We feel that there are other mechanisms that could address this — zoning bylaws in place at the municipal level," he said.

But Sean Tracey, former Canadian regional director of the National Fire Protection Agency, said leaving such decisions to communities isn't a viable solution.

Some provinces, such as Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia, don't allow municipalities to make and enforce their own building regulations, he said. They base their building rules on the national codes.

The end result is a Catch-22 in which municipalities in wildfire-prone areas in some provinces can't bring in tougher rules for builders.

"Should we not have higher building standards to prevent places like Slave Lake from occurring?" Tracey asked.

"Have we learned anything from these incidents, and to be frank, has there been any public policy changes as a result of that?

"No."

The agency told the commission that requiring simple design changes could make the difference between a home or building surviving a wildfire or being destroyed.

Alberta says its policy is all about ensuring that there is one set of rules for builders and communities across the province. The standards are no different for homes built in downtown Calgary or in a community in the middle of a forest.

Heather Kaszuba, a spokeswoman for Alberta Municipal Affairs, said individuals who want to build in wildfire-prone areas are free to use less flammable materials and keep their buildings away from trees, but the decisions are up to them.

"This is about providing a level playing field, not only for the municipalities, but also for trades, the building industry and the manufacturing industry in Alberta," she said. "It is about ensuring uniformity in Alberta."

Partners in Protection said in its submission to the federal commission that there is an urgent need for better design standards for buildings in forested areas.

The group said wildfires are a serious growing threat to communities and noted, among other disasters, the fires near Kelowna, B.C., in 2003 that destroyed 334 homes, temporarily displaced more than 50,000 people and caused $700 million in damage.

Partners warned that more people living in forested and rural areas, climate change, an increase in severe weather and increasing amounts of combustible brush and old forest mean more wildfire losses in the future.

"For all of these reasons, the importance of supportive building codes is mounting."

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