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'Tremendous amount we could be doing': Expert shares tips for preventing, adapting to wildfires

As wildfires rage across Canada in what’s being called an unprecedented season, one expert says there’s more that individuals and communities can do to adapt and prevent forest fires from causing widespread devastation.

“There's a tremendous amount we could be doing preventively ahead of the curve,” Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, told in a phone interview.

“The problem I find is that most of the time people wait until the floods are occurring or the fires are occurring or whatever, and they say, ‘Well, what do we do?’ And when your house is on fire, there's not a heck of a lot you can do.”


The Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation and FireSmart Canada have released a guide that features three key steps — expected to cost anywhere from $0 to $30,000 — that homeowners can take to limit damage and disruption from wildfire events.

First, the guide suggests maintaining your home at least twice per year, which is estimated to cost up to roughly $300 if you do this on your own.

This includes removing all combustible materials such as firewood and lumber stored within 10 metres of the perimeter of your home and under decks as well as removing all combustible ground cover like mulch, plants and shrubs within 1.5 to two metres of the perimeter.

“Because the fire comes up, ignites the shrubbery, that heat transfers into the house and that house burns down. So you get rid of that burnable material and replace it with riverstone or other types of attractive material that doesn't burn,” Feltmate explained.

Some other measures homeowners can take include removing needles, leaves and other debris from gutters, roof surfaces, decks and balconies, regularly cleaning vents and growing low-growing, well-spaced and fire-resistant plants.

The second step suggests completing simple upgrades to your home, which is estimated to cost between $300 and $3,000.

These upgrades include replacing weather stripping on all doors including garage doors, adding a three-millimetre non-combustible screen to all external vents, except dryer vents, and installing non-combustible ground surfaces within 1.5 metres of the house.

As well, wooden fences should be ditched and replaced with non-combustible fencing material such as chain link, stone or metal, Feltmate said.

“You don't want wooden fences around your house because a wooden fence that comes up in close proximity to the house somewhere actually functions as a conduit when it ignites (and a fire can travel) along the fence to the house,” he said.

The third step is more costly — estimated at a price tag of $3,000 to $30,000 — and involves completing more complex upgrades to your home.

This includes installing fire-resistant roof covering, installing non-combustible siding, installing multi-pane or tempered glass windows and fire rated doors, retrofitting decks and removing coniferous trees that are within 10 metres of your home.

“These are the things that catch fire very easily and the heat transfers to the house,” Feltmate said.

The guide notes that not all actions will be applicable to each home and that completing these steps does not guarantee the prevention of fire.


The Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation also has a guide that features various actions communities can take to strengthen their emergency preparedness in the face of wildfires.

To ensure wildfire-ready structures and infrastructure, it recommends that communities regularly maintain structures, infrastructure and landscaping within 10 metres to limit the accumulation of flammable materials, along with building and updating structures and infrastructure using fire-resistant materials like metal or concrete hydro poles, among other measures.

Designing and updating structures and infrastructure to be ignition resistant, as in having at least five metres of distance between vegetation and power lines and simple rooflines, is also important.

In order to design a wildfire-ready community, the guide offers a few suggestions including integrating fire breaks that are at minimum 30 metres wide featuring ignition-resistant materials to prevent the spread of fire and restricting development in wildfire-prone areas.

If you’re building a new structure, Feltmate said it’s best to ensure there is at least 10 metres of distance between it and other structures to prevent the spread of fire.

“The heat from one house, if it catches fire, transfers to the next and it's just like a domino effect, so you want to have the houses separated,” he added.

Finally, the guide offers tips for a community’s emergency response to wildfires.

It recommends that wildland and structural firefighters complete annual emergency planning and cross-training exercises that include multiple agencies, designating at least one emergency shelter per community, as well as providing sufficient water supply for firefighting.

Providing two or more access and egress routes is crucial as well, Feltmate said, so that people can evacuate safely and quickly if there is a wildfire in their community.

“There’s a lot that can be done that’s not being done,” he added. Top Stories

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