By Alan Westhaver  

Sixty percent of Canada's communities — 32 million hectares of land about half the size of Alberta — are located on the wildlife-urban interface, land that is on the edge of a forest, shrubland or grassland. People love to be in the woods, but with it comes the risk of wildfire.  Scientists are studying how fire moves from the forest and into urban and suburban areas. 

After the Fort McMurray wildfire, fire expert Alan Westhaver, featured in Nature of Things doc Into the Fire, investigated some of the 2400 structures that were destroyed. He closely examined 98 properties to determine why one house goes up in flames, while the one next door survives. "There are lessons in the ashes and the answers mostly lie in our own backyards."  He shares these tips for homeowners. 

SCENE FROM THE FILM: Alan Westhaver visits Fort Mac after the big fire.
  • Beware of embers. Wind-driven firebrands ignite most of the homes lost during wildfires.
  • Surround your home and deck with a “flame free” 1.5m zone. Use non-combustible mulches (i.e. gravel), green lawn, and high-moisture flowers and shrubs.
  • Space evergreen trees and shrubs at least 10m from your home and leave twice that distance between trees. Prune them to keep branch tips 2m above the ground and remove needle accumulations beneath trees.   
  • Keep your lawn mowed and watered. Trim tall grasses and weeds away from wooden fences, edging and combustible objects.
  • Don’t allow leaves or evergreen needles to accumulate on, under, or between the boards of your deck and patio.
  • Practice “good yard-keeping”. Eliminate flammable items like firewood, gas-powered equipment and construction materials, or store them at least 10m from any structure.
  • Remove combustible objects like furniture pads, mats, recycling, firewood and propane from your deck and patio when not in use. Never store combustibles under the deck!   
  • Inspect and seal any external vent on your roof, walls and soffits with 3mm metal screen.
  • Ensure your roof is made of fire rated material. It probably is, unless it is wooden. Keep roof gutters free of leaves and litter.
  • Read the FireSmart Canada Homeowners Manual.  

* Apply the same rules to any shed or outbuilding. If they ignite, fire can easily spread to your home.

To learn more new science about fire, watch Into the Fire.

MORE:
Into the Fire
Hot Fire Facts
New Science Tells Us Why Fire Is A Growing Threat

Alan Westhaver is featured in the documentary Into The Fire and is a co-creator of Canada’s FireSmart program. Now retired after nearly three decades as a National Parks wildland fire manager, he currently runs ForestWise Environmental Consulting from his home in Fernie, BC. 

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