Every year, over 100,000 forest fires burn across North America and research shows that this figure is rising. Recent wildfires in BC, Alberta and California have destroyed over 15,000 homes combined, not to mention cost hundreds of lives. Wildfires can travel up to 23 kph and consume everything in their path. So, what can you do to protect your home and your loved ones?
Tips to prepare for a wildfire
- Have a get-away bag prepared. Chances are, if you’re evacuated from your home, you won’t get a lot of warning. So, pack a gym bag with essentials (prescription medicines, photocopies of important documents, etc.) and leave it close to your front door. If one family member is not home when disaster strikes, you’ll be able to take their stuff, too.
- Protect your data. Invest in an external hard drive and program your computer to back-up automatically so you can spend a bit more time grabbing irreplaceable items when you’re forced to leave.
- 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 not only in wildfires, 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.
- Have an evacuation plan ready and make sure everyone in your family knows what to do in case of an emergency.
- Keep an emergency kit on hand. This emergency kit should include non-perishable foods and a three-day (minimum) supply of drinking water for each family member. Other helpful items include a portable radio, a flashlight, batteries, and a first-aid kit.
- Use fireproof materials in the construction of your home. These could include fire-resistant shingles, tempered glass windows, and a spark arrestor on your chimney. Taking these steps may even reduce your home insurance premium.
- 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.
Fireproofing your home
In fact, fireproofing your home may not be as costly as you think. A recent study, sponsored in part by the insurance industry, compared the cost of traditional building materials to those specifically designed to halt or slow the spread of fire.
For a three-bedroom, 2,500 square-foot build in Montana, adding a fire-resistant roof, vents and gutters increased material costs by $6,000 (or 27%), with fire-resistant doors and windows adding another $5,000. However, the increase in cost can be offset by using fire-resistant fibre-cement siding, meaning the overall cost increase is only 2%.
So, it may be possible to add protection to your home, but what should you do if there’s a fire in your neighbourhood? First things first, make sure you and your family are safe. Here’s how:
- 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 encroaching 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 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.
FireSmart recommends various ways to protect your home from damage caused by wildfires. A report by the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction shows the results of a study to see how at-risk communities are complying with these guidelines.
One area that stood out as a potential problem was vegetation near homes. While there are regulations surrounding the types of materials that can be used in home construction, vegetation surrounding a property was identified as the single largest contributor to homes lost in wildfires.
Based on this, FireSmart identifies three Priority Zones that must be managed to reduce the threat to your home. The most critical are zones 1 and 2:
Priority Zone 1
The 10 metre radius immediately surrounding 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
Between 10-30 metres 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 uphill, 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 should:
- Select fire-resistant plants. These are ones with moist, supple leaves, little dead wood and less tendency to accumulate dead material. You should also choose plants with water-like sap with little or no odour, or plants with a low amount of sap or resin material.
- Consider using gravel (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.
Home insurance considerations
It’s also important to 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.