Wildfire and your home - Reducing the risks

Janet Moje
High hazard. Coniferous trees, low hanging branches, tall dry grass and dry needles around the base, wood waste stacked under the tree.
High hazard. Coniferous trees, low hanging branches, tall dry grass and dry needles around the base, wood waste stacked under the tree.
Janet Moje PHOTO

In the last article, we covered the history of fire in the landscape, forest management practices that were used in the past, and what affects wild fires. In this article, we will look at reducing the risk of losing our houses during an "ember storm."

Wildfires don't have to burn right up to your doorstep for your house to be at risk. On the contrary, risk exists even when the fire is kilometers away. Depending on the intensity of the fire and the wind direction, embers or firebrands can engulf a town even if the actual fire never arrives. These ember storms will blow on and around your house, and if they find combustible materials, fire can take hold. According to FireSmart Canada, 50% of houses that burn from wildfire start from embers.

The materials used when building or renovating your house are vital. The roof being the most exposed should be made of a fire-resistant material, as well as siding, the next most exposed. Even the design lines of your structures can make a difference, and thought towards wildfires should be included in your house plans when building in a fire-prone area like ours. With existing structures, exterior improvements can be expensive and will likely require saving up funds to buy the needed upgrades, but they are well worth it. FireSmart Canada has a comprehensive document covering structural considerations

But there is much that can be done even if our homes are not fireproof fortresses that can significantly reduce our risks. Anita de Dreu, Emergency Service Coordinator for the Regional District of Fraser Fort George, started the process of Valemount becoming a FireSmart Community this past June. She went door to door with information packages about making our homes safer, but she needs our help. We need to do our part, and it starts with our homes. There are three zones to look at: Zone One is 0-10 meters around your house; Zone Two is 10-30 meters; and Zone Three is 30-100 meters.

The objective in Zone One is to remove anything that will act as tinder or fuel for fire. Clearing up this zone will have the largest impact.

Buffer zone

create and maintain a 1.5 meter perimeter around your house and deck(s) of non-combustible material. Think rocks instead of bark mulch.

Debris removal

Dry needles, pinecones, leaves, dead branches, tall grasses. Most debris will build up in roof valleys, eaves troughs, right angles of structures, under decks and it is a matter of cleaning them out, especially before fire season.

Stored combustibles

Fuel storage, fire woodpiles. To reduce the risk of your home catching fire, these items should not be stored in this zone.

Trees and shrubs

Thin trees to three meters apart from branch tip to branch tip, and trim up branches at least two meters from the ground. Consider replacing any coniferous trees such as pine and spruce with deciduous trees, a lower fire risk. Shrubs like cedar and juniper will burn like a jerry can of gasoline, they should not be in this zone and definitely not at the base of your house. When their greenery dies, they will shed it towards the inside of the shrub where it remains dry and acts like a wick, drawing fire upwards.

Decks and fencing

Replace wooden posts with metal ones if they are next to your house, and have metal flashing between your house and wooden decking. Wood fencing can lead a fire right up to your house so consider how you place them, or even changing the material to non-combustible.

Landscaping

Keep lawns cut and rake up dry grass and leaves, cut out dead bushes and dry, leafy stalks from spent flowers. Use fire-resistant, low-resin plants, ones with moist, supple leaves and minimal dead vegetation.

House exterior

Replace plastic or wooden vents with screened, metal vents. Your goal should be keeping embers out of your attic or crawlspace. Repair any holes in your siding to prevent embers getting in and igniting the wood structures behind it.

During fire season

Keep windows closed. If you need to evacuate, an open window is a sure way for embers to take hold. Water your yard at least an hour a day. Buy a roof sprinkler system ($130 at Home Hardware) and run them for an hour a day to increase humidity around your house.

If your home is on a slope, keep in mind that fire moves faster uphill. Increase your buffer area and maintain a 1.5 meter perimeter around your house and decks of non-combustible materials.

Watch: House vs. ember storm: Find out in four minutes which wins.

Zone Two, the area 30 meters around your house, is where you want to prevent any fire from getting closer to your house. You want to eliminate any tree ladders to keep the fire out of the canopy. Prune branches at least two meters from the ground. Thin trees to three meters between branch tips to prevent lateral spread. Consider replacing coniferous trees with deciduous ones, which have a lower risk of burning. Rake up debris on the ground (needles, cones, dead branches, etc) and dispose of it safely.

The goal for Zone Three is to slow the speed and intensity of the fire. As in Zone Two, thin trees and prune branches. Remove smaller coniferous trees, which can quickly ignite and spread the fire to the canopy. Chances are 100 meters around your house is no longer your property, but it is still your risk. Talk with your neighbours, offer to help them reduce their fire risk. You will be reducing your own as well. If we all do our part, our community will significantly reduce the fire risk for our homes.

In our next article, the focus will be wildfire reduction on a community level.