Forest Fires: A Burning New Issue for Homeowners

Forest fires have always been a part of Canadian summers. According to Natural Resources Canada, approximately 9,000 fires across the country from May to September burn an area roughly the size of Lake Erie. Increasingly erratic weather in recent years has changed precipitation patterns nationwide, causing floods in some areas and droughts in others. Communities that have never had to deal with forest fires are finding the flames licking at their back doors. In Kelowna, B.C., in the summer of 2003, fire destroyed homes in suburban areas and threatened to spread into the main part of the city. Whether you live in a community with a history of forest fires or not, it is wise to be prepared. Your home’s chances of surviving a fire can be greatly improved through careful planning and landscaping.

A fire burning near your property can easily jump to your home via a piece of fiery ash or flames moving through the treetops. You can reduce the chances of your home catching fire by taking the following precautions:

  • Clean roof surfaces and gutters regularly to avoid accumulation of leaves, pine needles and other flammable debris.
  • Wooden trellises, picnic tables, gardening containers and other combustibles should be kept at least three metres away from the house, garage, etc.
  • Store flammable liquids such as gasoline in approved safety containers at least 10m away from occupied buildings.
  • Dispose of stove or fireplace ashes and charcoal briquettes in a fire-safe container.
  • If you have a woodpile, stack it several metres away from buildings and fences and remove any flammable items from around the woodpile.
  • Install tight mesh screens over the flue openings of every chimney or stovepipe. The mesh openings of the screen should not exceed half a centimetre.
  • If you have a wooden deck, it should be treated with a fire retardant. Also, keep the vegetation below the deck moist and trim tree branches that come within three metres of the deck.

Upgrade to non-flammable roofing material such as metal (e.g. aluminium), tile, or composites containing materials such as fibreglass.

You can create a natural fire barrier around your home by minimizing the fuel sources that a fire requires to reach your home; choose fire-resistant plants, and keep your yard and garden moist.Here are some specific suggestions to create a fire barrier:

The level of moisture in vegetation is the most significant factor affecting its combustibility. You may wish to water plants around your home with ‘grey water’—water leftover from washing dishes or bathing. Water can be a scarce resource during a dry summer so reusing this resource will reduce the environmental impact with the added benefit that the soap residue will deter pests on your plants.

The oil and resin in coniferous trees (e.g. pine, fir) render them particularly flammable regardless of their moisture content.In fact, they burn 5 to 10 times faster than deciduous trees because of the oil and resin in the bark and needles. Even though coniferous trees are highly flammable, you do not necessarily need to remove all of them from around your yard. You can reduce the hazard by pruning lower branches and ensuring there is a gap of at least four metres between the tree canopies.

When landscaping, the plants nearest your home should be smaller than those farther away and they should be widely spaced. For example, leave space between rose bushes and intersperse with small flowering annuals. Large trees can safely be planted 10 metres or more from your home and shrubs should be at least three metres from your home.

Trim tree branches that extend to within three metres of your home including any chimney flue openings or exhaust pipes from a wood-burning stove.

Break up the continuity of your garden with decorative rock, gravel and stone pathways. These will help slow the spread of the fire across your property.

Once your annual plants have completed their season and begin to dry out, remove them from your garden and compost them.

Keep your grass trimmed to a maximum of 4 to 5 centimetres and water as needed. The evening is the best time to water your grass because less water will be lost through evaporation.

Many plants are fire-resistant meaning they do not catch fire easily, however, even these types of plants can become tinder for a fire if they are overly dry so be sure to water regularly. Fire-resistant shrubs include Wild Rose, Snowberry, Coralberry, Mountain Lilac, Heather and High Bush Cranberry. Fire-resistant trees and large shrubs include Mountain Mahogany, Common Lilac, Oak, Aspen, and Green Ash. If you live in a rural area, you may need to take some extra precautions, keeping in mind these factors:

Water supplies, fire hydrants, and firefighting equipment may be limited in rural areas. Without a water main or lake nearby, the only source of water may be what the fire truck can carry.

Consider the access to your home by emergency vehicles. Will a bridge with weight restrictions prevent a large fire truck from reaching your home? Is your driveway narrow and steep? Widening a roadway by moving trees, boulders, and other obstacles is prudent.

Some rural fire departments are made up of volunteers. This means the firefighters must get to the station then drive to the scene, which may be far away. Contact your local government to find out what fire fighting services are available in your area and the procedures you should follow in the event of a fire. Forest fires advance at a rate of 0.5 up to 6 kilometres an hour depending on the type of fuel involved and the wind speed. If a lightning strike ignites a fire nearby, you may have very little time to protect your property. Being prepared is the best thing you can do for yourself, your family and your home. Remember, if a wildfire is fast approaching, saving lives is more important than saving a building or possessions. Hopefully, by implementing these suggestions, all will be safe for many summers to come.

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