In light of the recent wildfire crisis in northern Alberta, it’s a good time to examine the fire-resilience of your home. Vancouver Island is no stranger to this type of disaster; a massive wildfire in 1938 produced heavy smoke enveloping nearly two-thirds of the Island. With drought conditions increasing in severity each summer, there’s no reason to believe that it can’t happen again.
There are specialty construction materials designed to make houses more fire-resistant, including paints that reflect heat, or PV shingles that generate power during an outage. There are also simple and effective measures available right now to reduce fire risk to your home.
Prevention is the first line of defense. In this regard, location matters — fire moves more quickly uphill, and the steeper the slope, the faster fire will spread. If you’re building a new home on a hilltop site, plan to set it back at least 10 metres from the crest. It’s also a good idea to maintain the same distance between the house and any trees. Choice of landscaping materials has an impact too; coniferous species are especially flammable, and should be spaced at least 3 metres apart. Keep branches pruned to at least 2 metres above ground, and keep the base of trees clear of any dead plant matter or other debris. Make sure that branches aren’t making contact with power lines (BC Hydro should be contacted to remove any branches that may pose a hazard).
The house itself can be made more fire-resistant through careful selection of materials. Wood shakes are a greater hazard than roofing made of metal, asphalt, clay, or composite rubber tiles. Sparks can ignite leaves or other combustible materials in gutters and corners, so these areas should be kept clear. Consider screening roof vents, and ensure that soffits and fascia are properly fitted; this will reduce the risk from sparks and direct heat to wooden rafters. A spark arrestor chimney cap is a good idea, and available at most home supply centres. Rooftop sprinkler systems are another option whose costs vary widely, from simple DIY types to professionally-designed and installed systems.
Untreated wood or vinyl siding are much less fire-resistant than metal, stucco, brick or concrete. Heavy logs and timbers, because of their greater mass, tend to offer more resistance than wood siding, and are now usually treated. Also consider your doors and windows. Single-pane windows offer little resistance to heat and should be upgraded. Doors to both house and garage should be fire-rated and well-sealed.
Take a look at the other structures outside the home. Sheds or other outbuildings, balconies, decks and patios should be given the same consideration as your house. Keep these clear of any leaves, tree needles or other combustible debris. You might want to enclose areas where debris might accumulate (for example, under decks). Wooden fencing and walkways can create a conductive path straight to your home without an intervening metal gate or other barrier. Although it seems to be a common practice, stacking firewood against a house or nearby shed poses a serious hazard. Burn barrels and fire pits should be situated well away from the house or other buildings, kept clear of debris, and screened with wire mesh if possible.
As we move into another summer of predicted drought, watering restrictions have already been put into place. During the coming season, it’s critical to ensure that trees not become dangerously dry. Water can be conserved via downspouts that feed water directly into the garden, rain barrels, cisterns, and greywater capture. Minimizing paved areas will help to channel runoff into the ground instead of allowing it to enter sewers. Many of us choose to let our lawns go brown in the dry months, so it’s good to remember that lawns mowed to less than 10 cm will burn less quickly.
Many of these measures can be implemented at little or no cost, but will greatly increase the safety of your home from fire. For more information, there are lots of online resources for homeowners. One of the most thorough is available from the BC Wildfire Service at: