With the memories of the unprecedented 2023 Alberta wildfire season still fresh in the minds of most Albertans, one can’t help but be at least somewhat concerned about the unseasonably warm and dry conditions the province has experienced for much of this winter season. These concerns are bound to be at the forefront for the tens of thousands of Albertans who found themselves evacuated from their communities last year and displaced while fervently hoping that their homes would still be standing when it was safe for them to return. The fact that the 2024 wildfire season was announced to have begun 10 days early, on February 20 instead of March 1, has only added to these apprehensions.

With conditions in the province shaping up for a wildfire season with the potential to be even worse than last year, what can a person do to protect their home? This concern is amplified in a community like Swan Hills, which is completely surrounded by boreal forest.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a magical solution to definitively erase all possibility of a wildfire disaster, but there are tried and true methods to help prevent wildfires and mitigate the risks—namely, the FireSmart program. 

FireSmart Alberta (FA) was founded in 2020, sparked by the recommendations of the provincial government’s Alberta Spring 2019 Wildfire Review Final Report. FA functions as a provincial chapter in alignment with FireSmart Canada. The organization works to provide Albertans with the tools and resources needed to reduce the risks and detrimental impacts of wildfires. 

FA works on three different planning scales: landscape, community, and the wildland-urban interface (where human development meets the natural environment). For the purposes of this article, we will explore how to implement some of the basic tenets of the FireSmart framework at home. 

Swan Hills Fire Chief Otto Fleming explains that the flames of a wildfire aren’t the only threat to houses and property; the embers from the fire are the most significant danger. According to the FA website, roughly 90% of homes damaged or destroyed by wildfire have been ignited by embers from an approaching fire instead of direct contact with the flames themselves. 

Burning embers carried by the wind will travel roughly 2 km on average before falling to the ground, but there have been documented cases of them travelling as far as 17 km. The prospect of burning embers raining down from the sky makes the roof the most vulnerable part of a home. With this in mind, it is crucial to regularly remove any combustible debris (leaves, pine needles, small branches, etc.) from this surface, including the gutters. Ideally, the roof would already be constructed with fire-rated materials, but depending on the age of the house, this isn’t always the case. It’s a good idea to make a point of using fire-rated materials when upgrading or maintaining the roof of your house.

Attached decks are often made of combustible materials, adding a significant potential fuel source for ignition that can spread directly to a home. While removing an existing deck is a highly undesirable solution for most people, steps can be taken to reduce the risk. Removing any combustible materials and vegetation from underneath and around the deck can go a long way toward making this part of a house less vulnerable. Consider using non-combustible or fire-rated materials when upgrading or maintaining your deck.

Managing the home’s yard is also vital to reducing its vulnerability to wildfire. Ideally, one should try to maintain a 1.5 m (roughly 5 feet) zone around the entire house and any attachments (like a deck) free of combustible materials (firewood, paper, building materials, debris, etc.). It is best to use non-combustible building or decorative materials within this zone, such as gravel, brick, and concrete. Highly flammable vegetation such as Woody shrubs, trees, or tree branches should be avoided within this area.

Make a point of removing as much unnecessary combustible material from your yard as possible. Move any flammable items such as firewood piles, storage sheds, trailers, and recreational vehicles a minimum of 10 m (about 33 feet) away from the home, and avoid using bark or wood mulches within this perimeter. Managing the home’s yard also includes keeping the lawn cut relatively short (less than 10 cm), as longer grass and weeds burn more intensely. Cleaning up any fallen branches and dry grass is also important.

“We’re all aware of what went on last year,” said Fleming, “and the more proactive we can be, the better chances we have as a community to keep our homes safe.”

Visit the FireSmart Alberta website (firesmartalberta.ca) for more information about the program and to learn about the actions we can take to protect our homes and community.

By Dean LaBerge, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Feb 28, 2024 at 12:33

This item reprinted with permission from   Grizzly Gazette   Swan Hills, Alberta

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