By Doug Reynolds
Former Executive Director, NOTO
n order to help support our partnership with Ministry of Natural Resources to deliver FireSmart information to the tourism industry, several NOTO staff attended a one day FireSmart training session conducted by MNR staff. The session was a real eye-opener, and it certainly dispelled some misconceptions I had about the threat of wildfire, and the steps we can take to protect our property.
Some years ago, I had the opportunity to work with MNR to photograph and videotape some fires and fire suppression efforts during a particularly difficult forest fire season. As those of you who have been close to a large wildfire know, there is a real sense that this thing is unstoppable. The magnitude of a forest fire can easily lead you to conclude that there is nothing you can do to protect yourself, and that it will be largely luck and the efforts of fire crews that determine whether your property survives or not.
The FireSmart program helps to change that thinking, and one way it does that is by showing how wildfires spread. Most of us picture a “wall of flames” moving forward, burning everything in its path. This is one important way that fires spread, advancing in the tops of evergreen trees – these are referred to as crown fires. The intense heat can ignite objects some distance ahead of the actual fire.
However, what is a more significant source of the fire spreading is not the heat in the immediate area of the fire, but the burning embers being carried forward by the wind! These embers may propagate the main fire or ignite new fires a considerable distance from it. Embers often represent the major hazard to structures, since they can fall over such a large area. Even if the main fire never gets close, burning embers are a major fire hazard.
The basic FireSmart approach to protecting your property is especially effective against fire spread by burning embers. It works for intense crown fires too, but when a crown fire gets very close it may be extremely difficult to stop. The fundamental approach of FireSmart involves getting rid of fuel sources for the fire. It starts by looking at zones. Starting with the building itself and the area immediately around it, it then moves outward. The most care is taken in the zone immediately around the building, since this is where a fire started by burning embers would most likely spread to the structures.
You want to eliminate as many sources of fuel as possible within 10 metres of a building. That means locating things like wood piles and fuel storage tanks at least 10 metres from structures. It also means cleaning up other fuel sources, like dry leaves, brush and tall grass in that 10 metre zone. The building itself is also a potential fuel source, and there are steps you can take to make it less vulnerable.
Roofs should be of fire resistant material such as metal or asphalt shingles rather than wooden shakes and should be kept clean of combustible material such as evergreen needles or leaves. Eaves and vents as well as the underside of decks and porches should be enclosed and screened to prevent burning embers from entering.
Of course, trees and brush are an important fuel source for a wildfire. Because fire can spread through the crowns of evergreen trees, closely spaced coniferous trees are not a good thing from a wildfire standpoint. Although you probably do not want to cut down all of the evergreen trees near your camp, there are still steps you can take to reduce the hazard. As trees are removed or replaced over time, consider substituting hardwoods or cedars, which have a low fire risk. If your evergreens are very close together, you may want to consider thinning them, and you certainly should remove dry lower branches that can provide a “ladder” for a fire to climb to the top of the tree and spread.
Depending on your location, you also need to consider how accessible your facility is to firefighters. If you are road-based, is your location well marked and can fire trucks get down your road? What about bridges and places for trucks to turn around? You probably are on a lake with water, but can a fire truck or fire crew easily get close enough to pump water?
Remote operators may want to consider having some basic fire fighting capability on-site. A suitable portable pump can also be used to operate a sprinkler system to help protect your buildings if you need to evacuate the area.
Although you may not be thinking much about wildfire after the very wet summer we have had in most of Ontario, many experts are predicting hot, dry summers ahead as a result of climate change. While the MNR places a high priority on protecting structural values, you can’t assume that fire crews will be able to protect your property from wildfire, but you can take some fairly simple steps on your own that will make all the difference against a threatening wildfire.
You can find more information on the FireSmart program at the following link, http://www.mnr.gov.on.ca/en/Business/AFFM/ 2ColumnSubPage/STEL02_165412.html or by clicking on the FireSmart logo on the NOTO website.
This article was taken from pages 14 & 15 of NOTO's "The Outfitter" publication, Fall 2008 Issue