Fire is Opportunistic, It Finds a Path, it Burns
Fires are now bigger, faster and hotter than before, torching more of our world.
Wildfires, like the one that raged through Ft McMurray this month or through Slave Lake, Alberta 5 years ago, levelling 33% of that community.
New building technology and new ways to think about fire and its behavior can save lives and property
Mike Flannigan, 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, it burns. It just needs a wick, and away it goes.”
Recently, images of the devastation left by the wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, where entire city blocks were destroyed, have seemed eerily similar to those of Slave Lake in Alberta after its fire 5 years ago.
The Slave Lake wildfire cost an estimated $700-M in damage. One of the 374 buildings lost was a fire station.
“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 station,” 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, Chief Coutts said, 5 years and $3 million later, it is a different story.
“Our new fire station is metal everything and there’s no trees around it and the grass is cut short,” Chief Coutts said.
A look from inside a burning home.
This is a technique dubbed FireSmart across Canada and FireWise in the United States.
But the Chief says no matter what you call it, it boils down to returning to the lessons that kept Canadian pioneers alive.
Chief 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, he says.
The Big Q: What homeowners can do?
The Big A: Canadians, Australians, and Americans must push back the bush and create fire breaks around communities, and individual homeowners need to get smarter about building materials and landscaping to prevent megafires in the future.
Removing items that can burn from the 1st 30 ft around your home, including woodpiles and shrubs is Key. When it comes to the exterior walls or “shell” of the house, metal, stucco, brick and concrete are preferable to untreated wood and siding.
Some homeowners in Australia have gone 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, said Kevin Tolhurst, associate Professor in Fire Management and Ecology at the University of Melbourne.
Prof, 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.
But when the Australians realized the fire was 2 to 3X hotter than “extreme,” they were forced to change the fire warning system, adding a “Code Red” or “Catastrophic” category.
Prof. 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.”
Prof. Flannigan agrees. He is 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 Ft. McMurray or Slave Lake, in some cases which houses are left standing and which are not 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 3 Winters’ worth of firewood stored underneath his deck or that yard where there was 150 spruce trees on the lawn.'” It is gone.
Remember, when traveling in forests and Danger Zones take extreme care, your life and the lives of others depend on it.
By Rhys O’Connell
Paul Ebeling, Editor