What can I do today to protect my home this wildfire season?

It is only April, and the Province is already managing several large wildfires and the forecast is calling for another dry hot summer.  On Salt Spring Island, wildfires are of great concern and we must all work together to ensure we do everything we can do protect our Island and our homes. As we are all dealing the complications presented with COVID-19, namely the provincial burn ban, we find ourselves with forest fuels that we need to manage in ways other than burning.

The Provincial Burn ban came into effect for a few reasons. Human-caused fires are more common in the spring due to burning of debris. By enacting an earlier province wide burning prohibition, the BC Wildfire Service anticipates a reduction in human-caused wildfires. This will minimize the need to deploy staff, which will help to reduce their risk of exposure to COVID-19 and help limit the spread of COVID-19 to the public as well. This measure will also help to protect the health and well-being of everyone by improving air quality as COVID-19 is an airborne, respiratory illness.

It’s in all our best interest to improve wildfire home defense this summer. The best way to do that is to FireSmart your property by focussing your energy on the first 10m around your home.  The 10m priority zone helps reduce the chance of wind-blown embers igniting materials near your home. A non-combustible surface area should extend around the entire home and around any attachments, such as decks. Creating this safety zone can be as easy as clearing vegetation and combustible material down to mineral soil. To add to your landscape design, use non-combustible materials such as gravel, brick, or concrete in the critical area immediately adjacent to your home. Woody shrubs, trees or tree branches should be avoided in this zone and any that are present should be properly mitigated. If you manage to reduce combustibles immediately surrounding your home, you will have done a great job in protecting your home.  For a full overview of what the priority zones look like on your property, visit https://bit.ly/3bi7h7V

An important concept to consider when protecting a home is understanding how wildland fires grow and spread. They do not move like an unstoppable tidal wave or lava flow. Instead, they propagate much like seed-born plants, from a combination of air-born embers and radiant heat. From research and observation, firefighters have learned that “ember storms,” which rain down on and collect around flammable materials, are the primary threat – not direct flame contact. Ground fires caused by these embers then climb trees or ignite homes to create larger fires.

Radiant heat or direct flame contact both have a short reach. Homes are generally safe from flaming trees beyond a span of 10 metres. Imagine a shower of embers raining down around your home. An ember will self-extinguish if it lands on green leafy plants, but it could easily ignite tall dried grasses or oily shrubs like gorse, junipers and cedars. Consequently, small actions, like clearing away woody debris from around a home, mowing a lawn or pruning lower branches from nearby trees, can be the deciding factor in whether your home survives a fire storm. Cleaning needles from gutters, watering garden plants and moving flammables away from the home are other simple common-sense actions that have a big impact.

When choosing plants for landscaping, use FireSmart principles to improve home survivability by selecting fire-resistive plants. Generally deciduous shrubs are safer than conifers in the immediate area around the home. Deciduous leafy trees (maples, alders and fruit trees) are surprisingly resistant to fire and Douglas fir trees have even evolved with fire-resistant bark.

Employing FireSmart principles when making decisions around renovation can have excellent secondary benefits.  For example, double-pane windows resist fire better and save on heating bills. Enclosed soffits deflect flames and keep out rodents. When replacing a roof, consider metal or asphalt over highly flammable cedar shakes. Metal and asphalt roofing have the additional benefit of longer replacement lifespans.

There exists an assumption that the fire department has the resources to protect homes in the event of a wildfire. But the reality of a wildfire is that emergency services are rapidly overwhelmed. Truthfully, almost any fire department would struggle to respond to more than one simultaneous structure fire. If you want your home to survive a major fire-storm event, it’s up to you. And you don’t want to wait until the province issues an evacuation order. One weekend of yard chores is enough to greatly improve your fire safety. Since this summer is shaping up for extreme fire risk, I’d start now.

For more information about FireSmart Programmes, or if you would like to organize a FireSmart workshop with your neighbours, please contact Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue at info@saltspringfire.com or visit https://firesmartcanada.ca/

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