Every year, over 100,000 forest fires burn across North America and research shows that this figure is rising. Recent wildfires in BC and Alberta have destroyed thousands of homes, not to mention cost hundreds of lives. Wildfires can travel up to 23 km/h and consume everything in their path. So, what can you do to protect your home and your loved ones?
Have a Grab-and-Go 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 ten 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, and make sure you include your pets in the plan as well.
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 (and for your pets). 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.
There is a growing misconception that homeowners have no power to affect the outcome of their home when it’s threatened by an encroaching wildfire.
“This cannot be further from the truth,” says Joel Hamilton, Wildfire Mitigation Supervisor for the Regional District of Central Kootenay. “Having an understanding of where your home’s vulnerabilities lie and taking even the most modest of actions to mitigate them can mean the difference between returning to your home safely or returning to a loss of structure.”
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.
The results were fascinating:
For a three-bedroom, 2,500 square-foot build, adding a fire-resistant roof, vents and gutters increased material costs by $6,000 (or 27%). Fire-resistant doors and windows added 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%.
The cost of fireproofing a home doesn’t have to be prohibitive, at least to address the most significant vulnerabilities.
The Wildfire Home Retrofit Guide, published by The University of Nevada, The University of California, and the Tahoe Resource Conservation District, details how many components of a home can be retrofit to increase their fire resiliency.
Some of the most critical components include:
The most important aspect of a home to consider is the roof. Speaking to the LA Times, University of California forestry advisor Susie Kocher says, “roofs are the number one factor that contribute to the flammability of a home because they can serve as large landing pads for embers.”
Both The Home Retrofit Guide and FireSmart Canada use a standard rating system for the fire-resilience of roofing materials: Classes A, B, and C. Class A roofs are the most fire resistant. These include roofs fitted with fibreglass composition shingles or clay tiles, for example. Any roof presently fitted with wood shingles or shake would benefit from an upgrade to a Class A material. The right combination of lower-class materials, if installed a certain way, can be as effective as a Class A material (referred to as a “Class A by assembly” rating).
Aside from refitting the whole roof, there are other steps that homeowners should take to improve their roof’s fire resiliency. Most notably, it’s important to remove debris (especially dried leaves and other combustible vegetation) from the roof—including gutters. Installing metal flashing at any roof-to-wall intersections also improves fire resistance, as embers are likely to gather at these points (just as leaves or other debris do).
When faced with a wildfire threat, any dormer windows or skylights should remain shut.
Vents, whether leading to the attic, a crawlspace, or elsewhere, are a prime entry point for embers. All vents be covered by a minimum 1/8-inch screen, made of non-combustible, corrosion-resistant material. Finer screens are even better at preventing embers from passing through.
Vent screens should be checked regularly for tears or corrosion. Inside the home, avoid storing anything combustible near vents—a particular concern with attic vents, given how often attics are used as storage space.
Some windows are prone to cracking and breaking when exposed to the heat of an approaching wildfire. Multi-pane windows with tempered glass hold up best to heat. In addition to the right glass, a window screen can prevent embers from entering the home if the glass does break.
Windows should remain shut during a wildfire threat.
Many decks are made of wood, which is certainly susceptible to fire. It’s important to create a fire-resistant zone around the home and the deck (more on that in the following section). Additionally, installing metal flashing on wooden joists or replacing them with metal joists helps. Even if most of the deck surface is wood, the boards closest to the house should be replaced with something non-combustible.
Like decks, many fences are made of wood. A separation between a combustible fence and the house is ideal. Failing that, any fence sections within about 2 metres of the house should be replaced with non-combustible material.
ready for an online quote? Your time matters, and so does your stuff. Get a personalized home insurance quote in 5 minutes. That’s less time than it takes to wait in line for coffee.
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 (ICLR) 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 developed a framework for identifying and mitigating these potential fire hazards: the Home Ignition Zone, or HIZ.
The first 1.5-metre radius immediately surrounding your home (and including the building itself) is the most critical area to consider for fire protection. This is the Immediate Zone.
“Over half of observed structure loss during a wildfire event is due to the accumulation of embers igniting combustible material and vegetation within the first ten metres surrounding a structure,” says Hamilton. “The homeowner’s focus should start in zone 1, and then working outward.”
“Simple tasks such as removing the leaves from a home’s eavestrough and under decks, replacing the combustible doormat or relocating wood stacked against a home to at least ten metres away will drastically improve the resilience of a home.”
Keep zone 1 clear of vegetation and deadfall. Keep grass in the area mowed and watered. This fuel-free space gives firefighters a chance to save your home from an advancing fire.
“At the same time,” continues Hamilton, “consider improvements such as replacing single pane windows and combustible siding, installing six-inch metal flashing where combustible wall features meet and installing 1/8-inch metal vent screening on all open vents.”
If you’re ever planning to construct a new home, keep non-combustible building materials in mind during the design process. Ditto if you’re planning major renovations.
Between 1.5 and 10 metres from your home is the second priority zone, known as the Intermediate Zone. Within this area, FireSmart recommends the following actions:
The Extended Zone is comprised of the radius from 10-30 meters away from your house.
In this zone, the goal is about reducing the intensity of any fires that happen to enter the area. You can accomplish this goal by doing the following:
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.
Despite the best prevention efforts, wildfires may still threaten your community. When they do, it’s important to be ready. Have a plan for yourself and for your family.
“As an evacuation alert may be pending for some time, and evacuation orders can happen suddenly, it is very important to be prepared,” says Hamilton. “Make a list of the items you, your family and your pets require while away from your home for several days and ensure they can be assembled on short notice.”
Hamilton recommends including the following on your list:
“This Grab-and-Go kit for your family and pets is recommended to anyone living within an area potentially effected by wildfire and should be able to be assembled on short notice.” He says.
Hamilton also recommends establishing a trusted contact away from your area, who can pass messages on to loved ones and help coordinate logistical needs for you in case you experience cell service interruptions. For more information on pre-planning, Hamilton suggests checking out FIRESafe MARIN or speaking to your local fire department.
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.
Want to learn more? Visit our Home and Personal Safety resource centre to find more information about protecting your family and your home. Or, get an online quote in under 5 minutes and find out how affordable personalized home insurance can be.
About the expert: Chuck Roydhouse
Chuck Roydhouse is a retired professional firefighter, owner of Clean Sweep of Anne Arundel County, and President of CSIA (Chimney Safety Institute of America). He has a degree in Fire Science & Safety from Shepherd University and 25 years of experience as a career firefighter. Chuck has been serving the chimney industry for 30 years as a CSIA Master Chimney Sweep.
About the expert: Jackie Kloosterboer
Jackie Kloosterboer runs a speaking business called Survive It. As a disaster preparedness expert, Jackie facilitates upwards of 100 preparedness workshops annually to individuals and groups, working with them to prepare for whatever disaster comes their way. Jackie is the recipient of the Queens Jubilee Award and the Northwest Preparedness Society Award of Excellence, recognizing outstanding dedication to providing emergency support services and disaster preparedness education.
Check out these related articles:
Get a personalized online home insurance quote in just 5 minutes and see how much money you can save by switching to Square One.
Even when you take precautions, accidents can happen. Home insurance is one way to protect your family against financial losses from accidents. And, home insurance can start from as little as $12/month.