A burning need to know: protecting your home from fire

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

This blog post is about fire coming from outside of your home.

This past week I attended the CatIQ Conference in Toronto for the third time (see https://connect.catiq.com/). The conference is about protecting our homes, neighborhoods, businesses and cities, and it draws people from all sectors - government, big business, nonprofits - because natural disasters, and especially weather disasters, impact on all of us. We can all manage risk better, yes? Except we don't really want to think about risks. Take for example how we manage fire risks.

The keynote speaker was Roy Wright, the president of the Institute for Business and Home Safety in the US (see https://ibhs.org/. While you're at it, check out the Canadian equivalent at https://www.iclr.org/. They both have excellent online resources for reducing risk to your home of all kinds). Wright talked a lot about recent fires in California. That's a long way from the Gatineau Hills. But I couldn't help comparing their risk with ours here where I live. Some interesting facts for homeowners: First, flames accelerate up hills (do I need to point out that some of us like to build uphill for the view?); Second, we love our trees, but regional weather has been trending towards long dry periods punctuated by rainstorms. This increases fire risk; Third, apparently sustained winds of 30 to 40 kms are perfect for supplying oxygen to a fire and spreading embers; and embers are a big concern because they jump spaces with no combustible material (e.g. lawns, roads and rivers); Fourth, shingles might be a concern but in the California fires the main concern was closer to the ground - mulch, dry leaves, wood decks and wood siding close to grade, firewood piled against the house, fencing and sheds attached to the house, trees close to the house and so on. Studies show that wind-driven embers hit the house and drop to the ground at the wall, which is where they set fire to anything combustible. Wright pointed out that the houses that survived the Paradise Fire - one of the deadliest in California history - had one thing in common: no combustibles close to the house. Even a few feet of stone around the foundation made a difference.

So the takeaways are pretty simple precautions to cut your risk: be aware that prevailing winds here are from south west to north east. If you're in the forest and especially if you're up a hill, create some open space around your house and especially to the south and west of your home. Keep combustibles away from your house (Wright said "putting mulch around your house is like spreading boxes of matches"). Keep dry leaves away especially under decks. Maybe consider stone patios instead of ground-level decks. Remove or prune trees that are too close, and clear dead branches strategically. And plan your escape route for the worst case scenario. See https://firesmartcanada.ca/ for more great tips.

Yah... maybe I sound paranoid about fire, but it's earned. A couple of rather dramatic incidents in my life gave me a profound respect for fire. Some simple preparations now can make a huge difference. Be prepared, not scared!

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