Preparing for wildfires

Reviewed by Chuck Roydhouse and Jackie Kloosterboer

Updated September 12, 2022

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?

A wildfire

Tips to prepare for a wildfire

  • 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.

Fireproofing 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%. So, it may be possible to increase your home’s wildfire defences, 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.

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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 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 ten-metre radius immediately surrounding your home is the most critical area to consider for fire protection. This radius is FireSmart zone 1.

“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.”

Hamilton suggests checking out FireSmart BC or the Regional District of Central Kootenay for more information.

Priority Zone 2

Between ten and 30 metres from your home is the second priority zone. Within this area, FireSmart recommends the following actions:

  • Reduce fuels by thinning and pruning vegetation.

  • 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 three to six 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, 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 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.

Have a plan for evacuation alerts

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:

  • Extra (appropriate) footwear and clothing
  • Travel documents
  • Extra vehicle keys
  • Credit cards
  • Medication
  • Sanitation supplies
  • Copies of important documents (passports, birth certificates, etc.)
  • Flashlights
  • Irreplaceable valuables
  • Anything else you feel is appropriate

“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.

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.

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.


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