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Wildfire safety tips for homeowners

Wildfire safety tips for homeowners

Did you know over 7,4001 forest fires occur in Canada every year? Most of them are caused by hot temperatures combined with drought, lightning and human negligence.

Even though wildfire season is generally from May to September, it usually starts in March in Alberta and in April in Quebec. During that critical period, there are some things that can be done to avoid causing or fuelling a fire.

What we learned from Fort McMurray

In early May 2016, a wildfire ignited in Fort McMurray, Alberta. At the height of the disaster, there were more than 50 active fire zones. In June, rainy weather and lower temperatures helped firefighters make progress against the blaze, which was not declared under control until July. In the final tally, nearly 88,000 residents were forced to evacuate their homes and the wildfire devastated over 5,890 km2 of territory and destroyed more than 2,500 homes, making it the most expensive natural disaster in the country’s history.2

According to an investigator from the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) who examined the debris in Fort McMurray, burning embers blown by the wind set fire to most buildings. The fire made its way into the city and spread to homes by igniting flammable elements of landscaping, building material and other objects. However, ICLR noted that homeowners who followed recommendations from FireSmart Canada to protect their property were able to make their homes much more resistant to wildfires.3

Preventing fires and damage

If you live in a grassland or forest area, you’ll need to take some precautions during the wildfire season.

How to avoid accidentally causing a wildfire 

  • Respect campfire bans in effect and report any open fires you see to local fire authorities. Depending on the province, fines for not respecting fire bans can be substantial. They range from $500 to $50,000 in Quebec and up to $1 million in British Columbia!4
  • If there aren’t any fire bans in effect and you’re lighting open fires, keep a shovel/rake and a bucket of water on hand so you can fully extinguish the fire.
  • Are you a smoker? Make sure cigarettes or other smoking materials are fully extinguished in water, not on the ground.
  • Visually check overhead electrical lines; quickly report any lines touching trees to hydro authorities.

How to make your home less vulnerable to wildfires

Burning embers can travel several kilometres from the main wildfire. To make your home more fire-resistant and increase the probability that it will survive, you can follow some simple but essential measures. If your neighbours apply these measures as well, the benefits will add up fast and help your community bounce back more quickly after a devastating wildfire. Go ahead and share this information with your neighbours!

Examples of simple measures:

  • Around your home and outbuildings (e.g., shed, garage), within 1.5 metres of outside walls: Rake up and get rid of any accumulation of pine needles, dead leaves and wood/bark/cedar chips. Remove dead branches from shrubs and hedges. Preferably, remove evergreen shrubs.
  • Lawn and yard: Mow dry grass and weeds, and water your lawn if permitted. If you have any evergreens on your property, trim the branches so that the lowest ones are 2 metres above ground. Clean up any piles of needles at tree bases.
  • Balconies and wooden decks: Sweep the surfaces or use a power washer to remove dead leaves and pine needles accumulated on, under or between deck boards.
  • Flammable objects and materials: Move building materials, firewood, machinery, RVs, ATVs and recycling, compost or garbage bins at least 10 metres away from any structure (or store them indoors in a safe and proper location). Store oil or gas containers, paint cans or propane tanks in a shed or garage.
  • Roof and gutters: Remove any accumulation of dead leaves, pine needles and other debris. Trim any tree branches near your roof by taking the necessary protective measures.

Examples of measures requiring more effort:

  • Attic vents, loose soffits, and gaps around doors and windows or at ground level: Repair them and, if you can do so safely, block any visible openings that could allow burning embers to enter your home or outbuildings. For example, you can use a 3-millimetre metal mesh screening or duct tape.
  • Evergreen trees located within 30 metres of structures: Trim branches so that the lowest ones are 2 metres above ground and clean up any piles of needles at the tree bases. Make sure there’s enough space between the trees on your property. Space evergreens at least 5 metres from your home and 10 metres apart.
  • Juniper and cedar shrubs: If they are within 5 metres of your home or shed, replace them with less flammable, moisture-laden deciduous shrubs.
  • Wooden fence attached to your home: Place a non-combustible gate or fence section next to your home.
  • Wood chips, bark or rubber mulch in flowerbeds: Replace them with non-combustible alternatives like pebbles (river stones), or only use them for islands located well away from any structures or flammable vegetation.
  • Combustible wooden roof: Plan ahead to replace it with asphalt or other fire-proof roofing.

Other measures if you live in a rural area or on a farm: 

  • Rake up and remove accumulated evergreen needles and leaves within 5 metres of buildings.
  • Cut and rake up cured tall grasses and weeds within 5 metres of all buildings.
  • Consider setting up a back-up water supply system and a separate power source.
  • Extend recommended tree spacing to 30–40 metres on all sides of your home and outbuildings. 

You can also refer to these tips for homeowners on how to reduce wildfire risks.

What to do if a wildfire is detected in your area

If a wildfire is expected to occur near your home, obey the warnings and evacuation orders from public authorities in your province and municipality.

If you have enough time and you’re able to do so safely, you can make your home less vulnerable to a wildfire.

Top 5 things to do to protect your home

  1. Double check decks, balconies and the perimeter of all buildings: Remove flammable objects (e.g., patio furniture, brooms, firewood, recycling bins, propane tanks) around, on or under these structures. Put these objects, as well as machinery and RVs/ATVs at least 10 metres away from any building. Store valuable items indoors in a safe and proper location.
  2. Block ember entry sites: Identify openings outside your home (e.g., attic vents, loose soffits, and gaps around doors and windows or at ground level). Repair them or cover them temporarily with duct tape or metal if you can do so safely.
  3. Trim grass and weeds: Mow grass within 5 metres of all structures and along wooden fences and borders. Make sure to rake up and dispose of cuttings, pine needles, leaves, dead branches and trimmings at least 10 metres away from your home.
  4. Connect garden hoses to outside water valves: Make sure that they can be easily accessed by firefighters and that they are long enough to reach all corners of your property.
  5. Close your windows if you leave your home.

Your home insurance has you covered

Your home insurance from Desjardins Insurance includes coverages for property damage. That means your house, condo or rental unit is protected against fires, including wildfires. Your policy may also cover additional living expenses if you’ve evacuated your home, for example. You can rest assured knowing that you can turn to our claims team at any time of the day or night.

Radar now sends you alerts for wildfires

Desjardins Insurance continues to innovate with its mobile app by giving you access to RadarTM. All you have to do is enter your locations to receive alerts about hail, high winds, heavy rain, tornadoes, hurricanes and now wildfires. Regardless of whether you’re insured with us, you can download our mobile app free of charge today!

Sources

1 Forest fires, Natural Resources Canada

2 Fort McMurray 2016 Wildfire Economic Impact, Statistics Canada
StatCan and the Alberta wildfire

3Why some homes survived: Learning from the Fort McMurray wildland/urban interface fire disaster, Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction

4 Déclencher un feu de forêt pourrait vous coûter 1 million de dollars (French only)

For more information

FireSmart® Canada

Wildfires: Before, During & After, Canadian Red Cross

Get Prepared – Before a wildfire, Government of Canada

Some conditions, exclusions and limitations may apply. The conditions of the coverages described are set out in the insurance policy, which always prevails.

These tips are provided for information purposes only. They are general in nature, and Desjardins Insurance cannot be held liable for them. We recommend using caution and consulting an expert for comprehensive, tailored advice.

TM Radar is a trademark of Desjardins General Insurance Group Inc., used under licence.

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