Fort Smith is offering free FireSmart assessments. Meet a woman taking them up on the offer

Helena Katz with one of her livestock dogs, Cassie, who died in a wildfire last summer. Katz is taking up the Town of Fort Smith on its offer of free FireSmart home assessments this year.  (Submitted by Helena Katz - image credit)
Helena Katz with one of her livestock dogs, Cassie, who died in a wildfire last summer. Katz is taking up the Town of Fort Smith on its offer of free FireSmart home assessments this year. (Submitted by Helena Katz - image credit)

The Town of Fort Smith is ramping up efforts to safeguard homes and properties from fire this summer by offering free FireSmart assessments — and Helena Katz is taking them up on the offer.

Katz said she and her husband, Mike Couvrette, take time to protect their home every year.

"It's not something you just sort of do once in your lifetime. You have to keep looking every year," she said. "[It's] not just about protecting your property, but you're also protecting your neighbours."

Fort Smith residents can sign up for a home assessment until July 15 by calling the town office. A volunteer firefighter or one of FireSmart Canada's home ignition zone specialists will then visit a person's property and give advice for protecting the home from wildfire.

Tracy Thomas, Fort Smith's senior administrative officer, said the local volunteer fire department is offering their services free of charge. She said a number of firefighters have been trained to do the FireSmart assessments.

"They will happily go and do a full assessment to make recommendations," she said.

Thomas said the roughly two-hour assessments include practical advice on minimizing fire risks, such as removing brush close to the house, properly storing lawn chairs and gas cans, and removing trees within a certain distance from buildings.

The town sign in Fort Smith, N.W.T., pictured in September 2019.
The town sign in Fort Smith, N.W.T., pictured in September 2019.

The town sign in Fort Smith, N.W.T., pictured in September 2019. The community is doing free FireSmart home assessments for residents until mid-July. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Part of the preparation Katz has done has been to create an emergency kit. A photo of that kit helped her win the territory's recent emergency preparedness photo contest.

Inside it, Katz has a few days' worth of food, camping gear and essential documents. She and her husband have also packed clothes in bags and keep those bags by the front door for a quick evacuation.

After last year's evacuation out of Hay River, Katz said she's not taking any chances. She and her husband were driving with their animals in a trailer when flames engulfed the highway and their vehicle caught fire.

They managed to escape and were rescued, but the couple lost their alpacas and herding dogs.

"The evacuation order was called very late, and people were risking having to leave late. And then in some cases, facing flames as they were trying to evacuate," she said.

Katz thought she was doing the right thing by packing all of her photo ID before leaving home. But while trying to replace their photo IDs they realized they had made a mistake.

"In order to get any photo ID, you have to have a photo ID in the first place," she said.

The couple tried to explain their situation down south, but had no luck. Eventually they were able to get their IDs renewed when they returned to the N.W.T.

Katz said they'll only take one piece of photo ID with them if they evacuate again, and keep another at home. She encouraged others to do the same.

"That way, if something happens, I only have to replace half of my ID."

Katz said another component of their preparedness plan is keeping their vehicle fuelled at all times during fire season and knowing where they will go if an evacuation order is called.

"There are basically two routes, either through Alberta or B.C."

Katz said they have an option planned ahead in both provinces, and they keep up to date on highway closures.

"It just helps me to feel more in control of what's happening around me," she said. "It's taking things into my own hands and ensuring that I'm doing the things that will help me to feel as safe as possible."