How a Firebreak Can Help Stop the Spread of a Forest Fire

May 25, 2018

It’s expected to be a long and hot wildfire season this year. On an average year, we lose an average of 21,000 square kms of forest in Canada to wildfires.

Approximately 8,000 different wildfires happen each year in Canada and it’s crucial that communities and municipalities are prepared in case one comes their way.

Firebreaks have been a successful preventative measure used to stop the spread of fires in Canada for over 100 years and continue to be a viable option today.

Keep reading to find out more about how a firebreak can help protect your community.

What is a Firebreak?

A firebreak sometimes referred to as a fuel break, is a method of basically starving the fire of fuel. While most firebreaks are linear in design there is growing understanding that area-wide firebreaks may be more appropriate and effective in many situations.

When creating a firebreak any debris, foliage, vegetative growth, kindling, and other possible sources of fuel for a wildfire are cleared in a continuous pattern to help contain a wildfire from spreading beyond it.

A literature study on fuel breaks shows that varying ranges of widths are used worldwide. Documentation shows them being anywhere from 65m to 2800m wide. Evidence shows that the wider a fire break is, the more effective it may be to work on fire containment and extinction.

The specific characteristics of each fire break are decided by the environment it’s meant to protect. Terrain, expected weather conditions, historical factors such as previous fire activity, and natural fire barriers and breaks all help officials and experts determine the best course to take.

Provincial Oversight and Differences in Policy

Each province has individual procedures, policies, and oversight agencies responsible for fire prevention and safety.


Alberta encourages communities to participate in the FireSmart Canada programs, databases and guidebooks to help coordinate fire safety within the province. The province developed its own FireStart guidebook and other resources geared towards the individual issues, terrains, and concerns of Albertan communities.

There were more than 1231 wildfires occurred in Alberta last year alone. It was a particularly destructive year when it came to wildfires in Alberta with a 34-year-old firefighter losing his life while attempting to contain a fire that destroyed 14 homes and displaced hundreds of individuals needing mandatory evacuation and displacement from their community for several days and even weeks after.

In 2016, more than 80,000 were forced to evacuate Fort McMurray and areas in Northern Alberta due to blazing wildfires that damaged more than 2,400 buildings and took almost 18 months to completely extinguish.

The past two years have led to a call for more thorough and comprehensive fire prevention programs at the regional, municipal and community level.

The province adheres to, and promotes, seven main components to the FireSmart program for the Wildlife Urban Interface plan to help communities and leaders prevent and be prepared for wildfires.

Fuel breaks are one of the first and most important considerations for a community or property that is near forests and wild vegetation.

1. Vegetation Management

This is where firebreaks come in. This factor in fire prevention limits the opportunity for wildfires to start or spread because you remove any vegetation, kindling and flammable growth or debris from the area.


The province has outlined regulations, standards, and policies regarding community prevention of wildfires with the Wildfire Regulations created in 2015 and amended in 2018.

Wildfire season is from April 1st to October 31st within the provincial act. Commercial and Industrial companies must adhere to the regulations and develop a wildfire prevention and preparedness plan for their organization.

The Ministry of Agriculture consulted government, community, agricultural, forestry and fire experts to prepare a Guide to Managing Community Fire Risk.

Fire breaks are considered a crucial aspect of any wildfire prevention and preparedness strategy within the guide. They save lives and reduce possible destruction or spread of the fire to communities.

Communities, citizens, and businesses are encouraged and required to be proactive in prevention and preparation for wildfires. They are encouraged to have dangerous trees removed, clear brush away and create firebreaks where needed.

Considerations When Planning a Firebreak

When planning firebreaks there are many factors to consider so that it will be effective in doing its job.

Width of Firebreak

The width that a firebreak should be depends on the environment and types of trees, plants, and brush in the area.

Open fuel types like grass don’t require an extremely wide break such as Boreal mixed wood fuel types. For the first, a width of just 10-15 m is recommended while for the latter a recommendation of up to 200m is given depending on the trees and other natural fuels in the area. The higher the conifer tree percentage is compared to hardwood, the wider the firebreak.

For areas that are predominantly conifer trees an even greater width may be required due to their extreme volatility. Jack, Lodgepole pine and spruce areas also require between 100m and 200m in most situations though the width can vary depending on the situation and area.

Location of Firebreaks

A firebreak can only protect a community and work on fire prevention if they’re placed in the right location. If it’s too far away from the buildings or community it’s there to protect, there’s room for a fire to start on the wrong side of the break and actually containing it in the exact area you’re trying to keep safe.

A properly located firebreak may not stop a fire or extinguish it but it will work to slow the fire down, bring it to the surface rather than in vegetation above the ground. It gives firefighters time and assistance in containing the fire and safely getting it out before injury or property destruction.

Natural Barriers and Breaks

It’s cost-effect and extremely efficient to use any firebreaks that nature has provided. Rivers, lakes, rock formations and other parts of the area landscape may be incorporated into your fire barriers and firebreaks.

It’s important to get a lay of the land and see what man-made or natural elements can assist in your plan. Roads, waterways, and non-vegetative ground can all be worked into a smart firebreak plan.

Firebreaks Save Communities

Firebreaks are a vital tool for saving properties, families, and communities. To get started developing your firebreak contact our experts today