How to Protect Your Home From Wildfires: 8 Steps To Better Fire Management

May 16, 2022

Depending on where you live, the ways you can protect your home from wildfires may not be top of mind. Even so, consider these Canadian wildfire facts (Source: Government of Canada):

  • Based on data from the National Forestry Database, ~8,000 forest fires occur every year in Canada.
  • 55% of fires are caused by human activity.
  • The rest (45%) are caused by lighting and account for 81% of the total area burned.

What does this mean for the average Canadian homeowner when it comes to protecting their property from wildfires and how does proper landscaping and tree care fit into the story? 

Let’s take a look.

The link between home tree care and wildfire protection

Protect home from wildfires forest fire management

Last month, we covered springtime residential tree care. Perhaps not surprisingly, the advice we shared in that post applies here. Consider that a cliffhanger. 

Learn how to protect your home from wildfires and prevent their spread with 8 fire management steps—keep reading.

1. Obey open fire bans

Open fire ban

Whether at home, on a work site, or while camping, a critical step to preventing forest fires is to adhere to fire bans. 

Alberta uses a multi-level fire ban strategy managed by Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AAF) in an attempt to reduce the risk of human-caused fires in the province. Depending on factors like weather and drought, levels are lowered or raised to prevent forest fires in the Forest Protection Area (FPA) of Alberta. 

Alberta Fire Ban System

Albert Fire Ban System

The following Alberta Fire Ban System fire danger levels are most important to homeowners:

  1. Fire Ban
  • Enforced when there’s an extreme chance of wildfire.
  • What’s banned: ALL open fires including fire pits, campfires, fireworks, and charcoal BBQs.
  • What’s allowed: Portable propane fire pits when used in a fire pit, and gas/propane stoves and barbecues used for cooking or heating.
  1. Fire Restriction
  • What’s banned: The use of wood campfires on public land.
  • What’s allowed: Wood campfires in a provincial campground and on private property. Portable propane fire pits when used in a fire pit, wood and propane/natural gas fires placed in a designated fire pit, and patio heaters.
  1. Fire Advisory
  • What’s banned: Fireworks and exploding rifle targets (without written permission). 
  • What’s allowed: Campfires in campgrounds, backcountry, and makeshift camping areas.

How to do more to prevent wildfires during fire season

Prevent wildfires during fire season

On top of obeying fire bans, you can make an extra effort to reduce the chance of wildfires during fire season by doing the following:

  • Never leave a fire unattended. 
  • When you’re done with a fire, drown it in water and wait to ensure embers are completely extinguished before leaving it.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher and other firefighting tools nearby. Tools are useless unless they’re kept in a handy spot where you can access them quickly and easily.
  • If you smoke, make sure you put out cigarette butts completely in a metal can filled with water.
  • Keep the area around your fire clean and clear. We recommend a 3 metre diameter free of leaves, twigs, branches, and other flammable materials.

Where this last tip is concerned, it also applies to your entire property—read on to find out how.

2. Create fire safe zones around your house

Fire safe zones around rural cottage house

A FireSmart™ landscaped property has been designed with priority zones, each with its own set recommendations for reducing fire risk to your home. There are 4 FireSmart priority Zones:

  • Zone 0/Non-Combustible Zone -> 0-1.5 metres 
  • Measure out a 1.5 metre buffer around your home, deck, garage and any other buildings on your property.
  • Remove ALL vegetation and flammable materials within this zone. For example, if you have firewood sitting on your deck up against the exterior wall of your house, move it to a spot outside of Zone 0 and 1.
  • Replace vegetation (trees, shrubs, mulch, grasses, and woody litter) with non-combustible options e.g., river rock, gravel, stone.
  • Zone 1 -> 1.5-10 metres
  • Measure out a 10 m buffer around your home.
  • Avoid trees in this zone. 
  • Instead, plant fire-resistant shrubs and perennials (more on this later).
  • Use a low-density planting strategy—space things out!
  • Avoid using mulch. Opt for gravel or river rock. 
  • Remove flammable objects (lawn mowers, gas cans, propane tanks and wood piles) from this zone. 
  • Move flammable objects, like lawn furniture and toys, if there’s an active wildfire in your area.
  • Keep lawns watered and mowed. Better yet, don’t have a lawn. 
  • Move firewood and construction materials outside of Zone 1.
  • Zone 2 -> 10-30 metres
  • Measure out a 30 m buffer.
  • Space out and prune your trees adequately. We’ll cover this in more detail later in this article.
  • Keep this area clean of fallen twigs, branches, dead leaves, dried needles, grasses, weeds, and anything else that could lend fuel to a fire.
  • Mowed grass is fire-resistant grass. Cut your lawn, groundcover, and weeds to keep them no higher than 10 cm tall. 
  • Zone 3 -> 30-100 metres
  • Measure out a 100 m buffer.
  • This is the perfect zone to create a firebreak on your property. Not unlike what’s done to reduce the spread of fire in a forest, you can create an invisible fire border on your property. Use driveways, walkways, retaining walls, edges, and rock walls.
  • Create space between trees so fire is less likely to jump from one to another. 
  • Prune and maintain your trees regularly. 

Best practices for fire prevention across your property

Best practices fire prevention property

Whichever part of the FireSmart Priority Zones you’re trying to tackle, enlist the help of a professional arborist to tackle the management of your property. 

3. Keep up with exterior home maintenance

Exterior home maintenance wooden cottage home

Exterior maintenance is about more than maintaining your home curb appeal, it can prevent and reduce the spread of fire. 

Not sure where to begin? The following is a list to get you started:  

Finally, take as much care of your sheds, garages, and other buildings on your property as you do your home. They, too, can attract and spread a fire if conditions are right.

4. Plant wildfire-resistant landscaping 

Plant wildfire-resistant landscaping 

Did you know you can plant for fire prevention? It’s true. 

Your choice in landscaping, whether that be where you plant and in your choice of trees, shrubs, perennials, or grasses, can help amplify or deter a fire. Here are a few (green) thumb best practices to get you started: 

  • Select wildfire-resistant plants and materials to make your property less attractive to fire. 
    • An easy tip to remember: choose leaves instead of needles. 
    • Deciduous trees (those with leaves) burn slower than coniferous trees (those with needles)
  • Keep landscaping outside a 10-metre buffer from your property. 
    • This includes where you put mulch. In fact, we recommend you avoid mulch altogether if you live in a fire-prone area. If you’d like a clean border around your home, choose river rock instead. 
  • Plant low density. 
    • Spread out your plants and trees in your landscaping.

Characteristics of fire-resistant plants

Characteristics of fire-resistant plants

What makes a tree or plant fire resistant? They generally have the following characteristics:

  • Slow growing
  • Moist, supple leaves 
  • Fewer branches and leaves
  • They drop a minimal amount of fine, dry, dead vegetation
  • Their sap is water-like, close to odourless, and they produce less of it
  • If they produce resin instead, they don’t produce much of it.

What about fire-susceptible trees and plants? They have the opposite characteristics as fire resistant vegetation, plus:

  • Their leaves or needles are aromatic.
  • Their bark is flaky, papery, or flaky. 
  • They have a lot of dried, dead material on the tree. Think about the inner branches of a pine tree—they’re loaded with dead twigs, branches, and needles. 
  • They drop a lot of fine, dry vegetation. Think dropped needles under a pine tree!
  • Holds a significant amount of oil or resin—like nature’s  lantern!

Now that we’ve covered the basic characteristics of what makes a tree more or less fire friendly, we’ll give a short list of the basic types of trees that fall under each category.

Fire-susceptible trees to avoid

Fire-susceptible trees

With these characteristics in mind, it’s best to avoid the following trees when planning your fire-resistant garden:

  • Cedars
  • Juniper
  • Pine, esp. Jack pine
  • Fir, esp. Balsam fir
  • Spruce, esp. Black spruce

Fire-resistant trees to consider

Fire-resistant trees to consider

If you’re discouraged by the previous list of fire friendly trees, don’t fret. There is one coniferous tree that does fall on the resistant list: the larch tree. 

Their needles tend to soak up more moisture making them a friendlier option. They do drop their needles in the fall, however, so best to rake them up before the summer arrives. 

As for fire-resistant deciduous trees, the list of choices is lengthy: 

  • Aspen
  • Poplar
  • Elm 
  • Oak 
  • Ash

Keep in mind that there are no truly “fire-proof” plants. Nonetheless, with proper planning, selection, and routine maintenance. 

5. Prune trees away from the ground

Prune trees away from the ground
Closeup of person hand in gloves holding bypass secateur and pruning rose hip bush. Plant care

There are two simple pruning rules to remember when it comes to creating a fire-resistant property:

  1. Prune trees, especially coniferous ones, so their lowest branches are at least 2 metres from the ground. This is especially important for trees in Zone 2 of your FireSmarty Priority Zones. 
  1. Remove dead or dying tree branches that overhang your roof, shed, garage, or chimney. Anything that overhangs within 3 metres of your house also needs to go. 

6. Space out your trees 

Space out trees wildfire managment

As we discussed earlier when we covered priority zones, the spacing between flower beds, shrubs, trees, and other vegetation is critical for reducing the spread of wildfires

The factors that affect spacing include:

  • The type of trees,
  • The size of property, 
  • The slope, and 
  • How trees will be clumped together, if at all. 

For example, a steeper sloped property with larger trees requires greater spacing than one that’s flat with smaller trees. 

Work with a certified arborist to figure out the next spacing strategy for your trees.

7.  Plan for emergency responder access

Firefighter wildfire preparedness emergency responder access

A simple but often forgotten measure for protecting your home from fires is to ensure it’s accessible.

For your entire property, make sure firefighters can find and gain entry to your property. Mark your address clearly, prune away anything that may cover a street sign or address marker, and ensure your driveway stays clear.

8. Work with your neighbours

Work with your neighbours forest fire management

If, after you’ve measured your priority zone buffers, you find yours overlaps with your neighbour’s, it’s time to work together to strengthen your fire-prevention strategy.

Prepare and plan for wildfires together. Your home and your neighbour’s property are ultimately only as fire-proof as your weakest collective link. 

Help each other out, support one another to firesafe your community, and you’ll ultimately end up safer and more fire-resistant together.

9. Have an escape plan—and practice it.

Wildfire management tips escape plan

Now that you’ve obeyed fire bans, created fire zones, done your maintenance and cleanup, planted fire-resistant trees and cared for them, and worked with your neighbours to keep each other safe, what next?

Do you know what to do if, god forbid, a wildlife did reach your property?

Have a wildfire evacuation and shelter-in-place plan for you and your family. Write it down, discuss it, and practice it—often!

Protect your home from wildfires in Alberta & Saskatchewan

Protect your home from wildfires in Alberta & Saskatchewan

A professional arborist will help you mitigate wildfire risk by planning, clearing, pruning, appropriately planting, and maintaining your property to keep it fire safe. 

The good news is you needn’t spend a lot of money to make your landscaping wildfire resilient.   Call Pevach for a quote. A member of our team will come out to inspect your property and offer you a plan to protect your home, and your family, from wildfires.

Contact Pevach today to schedule a fire management assessment in Bonnyville, Meadow Lake, or other communities in the Lakeland region of Alberta and nearby Saskatchewan. 

Protect Home Wildfires