Urge to live with trees, nature may be leading wildfire to our front doors

When it comes to guarding against wildfires around your home and garden, what you build is as important as where you build, experts say.

Wise choices of building materials and landscaping could limit potential for fire damage

Homes along 12th Street in Slave Lake, Alta., burn in the wildfire of May 2011. (Lesser Slave Regional Fire Service)

At first glance, it looks like Mike Flannigan is playing in a pile of dry garden wood chips on the campus of the University of Alberta, but really it's science at work.

"We have a simple test. If I drop to my knees and then stand up — if my knees are wet, it won't burn."

The University of Alberta professor of wildland fires says what we place in our gardens could make the difference between our homes catching on fire or not. 

"Fire is opportunistic. It finds a path, it probes, it searches."

University of Alberta wildfire expert Mike Flannigan says fire is 'opportunistic.' (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

After the devastating fire of 2011 in Slave Lake, Alta., Flannigan recalls seeing the front walk and driveway of one home in the community lined with mulch. That led the fire right to the front door, but the home's green lawn was untouched.

"It just needed a wick, it just needed a path and away it went."

In recent days, images of the devastation left by the wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., where entire city blocks were destroyed, have seemed eerily similar to those of Slave Lake after its fire five years ago.

The Slave Lake wildfire cost an estimated $700 million in damage. One of the 374 buildings lost was a fire hall.

"Looking back on it, a bunch of spruce trees led right up to it. We had a bunch of pallets that we used for training stacked up maybe 10 metres away from the fire hall," says Lesser Slave regional fire Chief Jamie Coutts.

The building, made of asphalt shingles and clapboard siding, was constructed with the wrong kind of materials, Coutts said.

Five years and $3 million later, it's a different story.

Changing landscaping around buildings

Lesser Slave regional fire Chief Jamie Coutts stands next to the new fire-proof fire hall in Widewater rebuilt after the wildfire in May 2011. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

"Our new fire hall is metal everything and there's no trees around it and the grass is kept short," Coutts said.

This is a technique dubbed FireSmart across Canada and Firewise in the United States.

But Coutts says no matter what you call it, it boils down to returning to the lessons that kept Canadian pioneers alive.

"Homesteaders would come out and they would say: 'Down this line, they would cut all the trees down and that would be your field starting here. Then the woods starts there.' "

Coutts says our love for nature and desire to live alongside trees puts us in danger, enabling fire to arrive at our front door.

"To a forest fire, houses are just another kind of tree. So there's nothing special about them, it's a burnable piece of material."

The sooner we look at our homes as potential fuel for a wildfire, the better, Coutts says.

What homeowners can do

An area on the outskirts of Slave Lake, Alta., has been thinned as part of the FireSmart technique. (Adrienne Lamb)

Coutts believes Canadians must push back the bush and create fire breaks around communities. 

Meanwhile, individual homeowners need to get smarter about building materials and landscaping to prevent megafires in the future.

Coutts suggests removing items that can burn from the first 10 metres around your home, including woodpiles and shrubs.

When it comes to the exterior walls or shell of your house, Coutts says metal, stucco, brick and concrete are preferable to wood and vinyl siding.

Deadly lesson from Down Under

Some homeowners in Australia have gone even further in terms of fireproofing, creating private bushfire bunkers similar to underground tornado shelters in North America. 

The catalyst for a move to bunkers and stricter building codes came in February 2009, when the Black Saturday bush fires swept across the state of Victoria, killing 173 people and injuring 400 more.

They were the worst wildfires Australia ever experienced, says Kevin Tolhurst, associate professor in fire management and ecology at the University of Melbourne.

Tolhurst says the fire's intensity was off the charts. Those charts had measured fire intensity with five categories: low, moderate, high, very high, and extreme, says Tolhurst.

But when the Australians realized the fire was two to three times hotter than "extreme," they were forced to change the fire warning system, adding a "code red" or "catastrophic" category.

More intense fires

Tolhurst, who earned the Order of Australia for his insights into fire, says the intensity of modern fires is beyond our planning and our design criteria and that "all bets are off." 

The aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, Australia, on Feb. 7, 2009. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Flannigan agrees. He's seeing a similar growth in intensity in the recent catastrophic fires in Canada. 

When it comes to sifting through the aftermath of a fire in places like Fort McMurray or Slave Lake, Coutts says in some cases which houses are left standing and which aren't can be explained. 

"We look at overhead pictures and say ... 'Remember how that house was built and it had wooden decks all around it or remember that guy who had three winters' worth of firewood stored underneath his deck or that yard where there was 150 spruce trees on the lawn.'"