Know how to stack the odds. Protect your place against wildfire


Story by Helen McMenamin

The Agricultural Health and Safety Network (The Network) takes a holistic approach to mental and physical health, and the safety of producers. These interconnected themes form the basis of the Network's 20 year Farm Stress Initiative. This ongoing venture continues to provide tools for producers to use themselves and with their family and workers.

FireSmart Canada aims to prevent fires and lessen their damage. Much of the work falls to provincial and municipal government, but communities and residents have a big part to play, says FireSmart President, Laura Stewart.

"Homes are most often lost before or after the main fire front has passed," she says. "A firebrand or embers blow onto the roof or a fuel close to the house and up it goes. Living in natural or farmed surroundings puts you close to fire - it's a part of nature here. Whether you're building new or maintaining an existing home, keep fire in mind."

Stewart and her team focus on homes, but their advice applies at least as much to other buildings that may house livestock or store equipment vital to your livelihood. If firefighters are on the scene, they may focus on saving a house at the expense of other buildings.

FireSmart Canada advises keeping the first metre - preferably three (3 to 10 feet) - around a house or important building, including under decks, totally free of fuel. Tall grass and evergreen shrubs are particularly hazardous. She calls junipers "gasoline tanks - they can explode and carry fire up the side of a house like a torch." Leaves and evergreen needles, bark chips or other organic mulch or bales around the house or in eavestroughs can be fuel for a spark or they can smoulder for days then ignite and be whipped around by the wind into a vulnerable spot.

Woodpiles stacked against the house are another thing fire prevention specialists hate to see. Even if the wood doesn't catch fire immediately, air spaces can nurture tiny sparks into real fires.

FireSmart advises crushed rock around a house or scraping soil away to expose the mineral soil below around a house. They're okay with grass if it's kept short and free of flammable debris like fallen leaves. If you must have plantings close to your house, put them on the side of the house that retains the most moisture, Stewart says.

Piles of leaves are a concern anywhere, because piled leaves don't decay into the forest floor the way natural leaf falls do. The winds around a fire can blow up burning leaves and start new fires.

Evergreen trees are another concern. FireSmart advises having none within 10 metres of your house, or at least pruning them so no branches overhang buildings. If it's a forest area, they suggest thinning the trees for 30 meters around to prevent crown fires, where flames go from tree to tree in the canopy. Take out dead trees in that area. In a fire, a dead tree can act as a chimney, spewing burning pine cones and other firebrands. If they hit a rain gutter with flammable debris, they can set off a fire in the roof that's very difficult to control.

On steep slopes, manage vegetation for a longer distance downhill. The goal is to reduce "ladder fuels," where fire burning uphill preheats and dries the fuel in its path.

Wildfires are more destructive in forested areas, but if your yard is in the path of a fire on grassland or farmland it can be affected too, and the fire can hit with even less warning. Standing stubble and trash in direct-seeded fields can spread as fast as a grass fire. Those can move fast but unwatered drought-tolerant deciduous shrubs can explode, and dry manure burns well.


Stewart wants everyone to build and maintain their property with fire in mind.

If she had her way, everybody would spend the next weekend cutting the combustible materials right around their house.

Move the woodpile away from the wall of the house. Sweep off the deck and take any flammable materials stored under the deck out and store them somewhere else. Ideally, close in the space under a deck so leaves and pine cones and needles can't accumulate there. Failing that, sweep out the spaces under decks. Burning embers can blow in there just as easily as the debris you sweep out.

Add cleaning out the eavestroughs - even those that don't seem to clog up - and mowing and trimming the grass around buildings to your regular chores.


Remove as much flammable material as you can from areas within 10 metres of your house and buildings. Stewart suggests gravel rather than wood or other organic mulch in gardens, and getting rid of juniper foundation plantings.

Think through and talk about emergency plans. The most sensible of us can make errors when we're rushed into action without thinking things through. If you have livestock, make sure your premises identification is up to date. In the event of a fire or other disaster, ensure that first responders will be aware of the animals, and be prepared for them on the road as they approach. A plan for each pasture could help too.

Prepare an emergency pack, maybe one for each family member, and keep it near the door. Include cash, medications, water and comfort items, maybe clean socks and underwear, a special toy.

If you're doing renovations or putting up a new building, Class A fire-rated shingles are a good choice. Metal roofs are fire resistant, but can sustain hail damage. Concrete, stucco, brick or Hardie Board siding are all fireproof, and better choices than vinyl siding that burns.


If you are threatened by fire, put things you need in your vehicle and move it to the driveway, facing out. Make sure you have your credit card, medications and important papers. Close doors and windows before you leave. Don't forget the garage door: many fires enter houses through the garage.