Preparing for wildfires

In 2003, wildfires struck British Columbia’s Okanagan region and destroyed more than 250 homes. In 2009, thousands of families had to be evacuated. In 2010, the August long weekend skies were darkened by the smoke emanating from more than 400 fires burning all at once (in an average year, more than 2,500 fires destroy more than 25,000 hectares of land in BC). And, in 2016 countless homes were destroyed from the devastating Fort McMurray wildfire. If you live in a heavily wooded area, it doesn’t take much for a fire to spread from treetop to treetop. Long before the emergency evacuation crew knocks at your door, here are a few things you can do to protect your family and your belongings:

  • Have a getaway bag prepared: You may not get a lot of time, so having a gym bag packed with essentials in the front hall closet will ensure you have what you need. If one of your family members is not home when disaster strikes, you will be able to gather up what is important for them as well. Essentials include prescription medicines and photocopies of important documents. Nice-to-haves include toiletries, electronics, etc.
  • Your data: Invest in an external hard drive and program your computer to do automatic back-ups so you can spend a bit more time grabbing photos and other irreplaceable items when you are forced to leave your home.
  • Look up, look way up: If you have overhead power lines on your property, make sure they are clear of vegetation and well away from the nearest tree. Trees fall down, not only in fires, but in wind storms as well.
  • Create a zone of protection: If you can ensure the area within 10 metres of your home is free of trees, flammable vegetation, and other combustibles, you’ll go a long way towards protecting your home.
  • Don’t build camp fires when the weather’s been dry, and never smoke in fire hazard areas.
  • Don’t throw a lit cigarette from your car. Dry grass can easily catch fire from a smouldering cigarette butt.
  • Cut back vegetation around your home.
  • Use fireproof materials in the construction of your home, whenever possible. This could include fire resistant shingles, tempered glass windows, a spark arrestor on your chimney. Taking these steps may even reduce your home insurance rate.
  • Have an evacuation plan ready. Make sure everyone in your family knows what to do.
  • Keep an emergency kit on hand. This should include non-perishable foods and at least a three-day supply of drinking water. Other helpful items include a portable radio, a flashlight, batteries, and a first-aid kit.

What happens if there’s a fire nearby your home? What should you do? First thing’s first, make sure you and your family are safe. Here are a few other recommendations:

  • Evacuate your home immediately, if ordered by a civil authority.
  • Time permitting; fill any large containers, such as pools, hot tubs, or garbage cans with water to slow down an approaching fire.
  • Make sure your house numbers are visible, and preferably made of fireproof materials. This will help firefighters locate your home quickly.
  • Call 911 if you see any sign of a wildfire.

For more valuable tips, and to complete a home hazard assessment, check out the Fire Smart Manual for one of these provinces: Alberta or BC. For more detailed information about protecting your home from wild fires, take a look at the Homeowner’s Guide published by the BC Forest Service.

FireSmart

“FireSmart” recommended various ways to protect your home from damage caused by wildfires. FireSmart is a partnership of community members, local governments, firefighters, community leaders, and industry partners, brought together under one umbrella by a not-for-profit organization called “Partners in Protection” whose goal is to reduce the threat of wildfire. The report by ICLR is the result of a study to see how at-risk communities are complying with FireSmart’s recommendations.

The area that stood out as a potential problem was vegetation near homes. Obviously the actual building design and construction material used to construct your home has a bearing on how likely your home is to survive a wildfire, but vegetation near homes is the largest single contributor to home losses caused by wildfire.

FireSmart identifies three priority zones that must be managed to reduce the wildfire threat to your home. The most critical are Priority Zone 1 (the area within 10 meters of your home) and Zone 2 (the area 10 to 30 meters around your home).

Priority Zone 1:

The first 10 metres of space around your home is the most critical area to consider for fire protection.

  • Remove shrubs, trees, deadfall or woodpiles from this area.
  • Keep your grass mowed and watered.

This “fuel free” space gives firefighters a chance to save your home from an advancing fire.

Priority Zone 2:

From 10 to 30 metres out from your home is the second priority zone.

  • Reduce fuels by thinning and pruning so that combustion cannot be supported.
  • Remove trees and debris that can spread fire upwards to become a fast spreading crown fire.
  • Space trees so that the crowns of individual trees are 3 to 6 metres apart.
  • Remove or reduce the number of evergreen trees in the area. Evergreens such as pine and spruce are much more combustible than deciduous trees, such as aspen, poplar, and birch which have very low flammability rates.
  • Remove deadfall, thick shrubs, and mature trees that might provide the opportunity for a ground fire to climb up into the forest canopy. Once a fire crowns out, it’s virtually unstoppable. Because fires spread more easily up hill, it’s important to extend the second priority zone precautions further on downhill slopes and on windward exposures.

The type of plant material and the design of the landscape immediately adjacent to your home is a critical factor. FireSmart also recommends that when landscaping your property, homeowners:

  • select fire resistant plants. These are ones with moist, supple leaves, little dead wood and less tendency to accumulate dead material, water-like sap with little or no odour, or plants with a low amount of sap or resin material.
  • consider using gravel mulch or rock mulch, instead of bark or other plant-based mulches which are susceptible to ignition from wildfire embers or cigarettes.

The ICLR report points out how close we are to seeing another disaster like the one in and around Kelowna in 2003. The ICLR also provides a brochure about protecting your home from wildfire. We all need to do our part to not only prevent forest fires, but to limit the damage to life and property should wildfires occur. For more information, please see the FireSmart Canada website.

Make sure you have the right home insurance. If the worst happens, and a wildfire strikes in your area, don’t be caught without enough coverage to rebuild your home. An insurance agent can help you complete a home evaluation to be sure you’ve got the right protection for your home, your contents, and any detached structures on your property. For more information, or to get a home insurance quote, contact Square One at 1.855.331.6933.

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