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Fireproof Your House To Protect You From Wildfires Like Those In Kelowna

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

Action, Not Despair

We can reel at the tragedy of lives upended and homes destroyed by wildfires, but the same thing will almost certainly happen to the houses that are rebuilt and to your house if you live in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) unless the right fire-hardening strategy is used.

The Need To Act Now

Although there can never be any guarantee that a building will not burn down, taking the actions described here will change your house's future likelihood of survival through a wildfire from almost ZERO to very high.

Forest fires are increasing - and will continue to increase - in frequency and size due to drier conditions and will attack an increasing number of suburbs and other populated areas. 99.999999% of houses are not designed to survive a forest fire, and entire neighbourhoods are being destroyed needlessly.

This Likely Affects YOU

At the time of writing this article, Kelowna and Yellowknife are partly evacuated and being attacked by wildfire. A state of emergency was declared in Kelowna and then in British Columbia within days. A celebrity's (Todd Talbot) home was destroyed, some people were trapped near Okanagan Lake, and a resort was destroyed.

From the Lower Mainland, we follow the news as spectators. However, we are only a little less vulnerable; the North Shore and the less agricultural portions of the Fraser Valley's delta (e.g. Maple Ridge, Mission, Coquitlam) are particularly vulnerable as perfect examples of communities in the WUI. If you live in a house within several kilometres of an undeveloped area in BC, you have no grounds for thinking that your home will be safe; your house is more and more likely each summer to be destroyed, leaving you homeless. Am I being dramatic and sensationalist? There are hundreds or thousands of Canadians who've lost everything sometime in the past decade who would think not and would beg you to take action.

Mention protection against wildfire, and immediately most people will respond either seriously or jokingly that they'll keep the flames at bay with their garden hose.

That won't work; here's why.

Have you ever seen a team of firefighters moving a fire hose into a burning house? That's the water supply straight from a fire hydrant - enough force that driving the hose into the fire requires two fighters. One house on fire requires multiple teams working from multiple directions, each wearing fire-retardant heat-resistant gear and most of them also air tanks.

In contrast, the temperature of a vicious wildfire may be even higher, and everything around the house will be on fire - which consumes all the available oxygen. Your wimpy waterstream likely won't be enough to keep you from developing serious burns before you collapse from asphyxiation or smoke inhalation.

Passive House and Net Zero homes are a great first step to revisit how houses are built, but there are things that these systems don't address well; wildfire resistance is one of those things. Ultra high-performance construction includes details that contribute to durability. These five strategies will go a long way to giving your house defence against approaching forest fire.

1. Limit Liability

In some fires such as the one that destroyed Lytton, the flying embers landed in piles of random materials stacked up in people's yards. The resulting fire adjacent to the house then sets the house ablaze. These materials are generally combustible - often old branches, firewood, boxes, etc. - and are easily set aflame. Keep your property tidy; don't store old materials out in the open or even under tarps. If you need to store goods outdoors, use a metal shed - not a plastic one. If you're designing a new house, consider expanding the garage a bit and enclosing a portion of it to store various materials.

Dead leaves and twigs gather in similarly troublesome piles in your gutters, in the valleys of your roof, and on your porch or deck. Keep them swept clear of debris. Use gutter shields to cut way down on how often they need to be cleared. If you're building a new home, design a roof with fewer peaks and valleys to minimize the number of places where flammable dry vegetation can gather.

2. Prevent Ignition

A former US Forest Service research scientist put it, "If your house doesn't ignite, it doesn't burn." Virtually every house in British Columbia is constructed of wood, but it is the siding materials and roof finish which mostly what determine whether or not the house catches on fire. Examples of noncombustible siding are brick, stone, cementitious stucco, metal, cement panels (e.g. Öko, Synstone), and fibre-cement panels or planks (e.g. Hardie, Ceraclad). All of these come in historic, contemporary, or modern colours and textures to suit your tastes.

3. Deny Fire Entry

If you have any single-glazed windows, replace them right now. Double-glazed windows are a bit better, but triple-glazed windows should be a serious consideration for either a new or existing house. Here's why: the heat from a fire near a window causes extreme thermal stress since the interior temperature is much lower, and the glass shatters. Broken windows are often the means by which smoke, flame, and embers enter a home and subsequently burn it out from the inside out.

A better solution to protect windows are either fine-mesh security screens (e.g. CrimSafe) or overhead fire shutters (e.g. Overhead Door). Replace your exterior doors with fire-rated doors. In addition to windows, you'll need to provide protection for your exhausts (range hood, bathroom, dryer) and any vents (e.g. attic, roof ridge, crawlspace). Ensure all vents are constructed of metal and use 3mm metal (NOT fibreglass) mesh behind all vent openings.

4. Prevent Incubation

Wherever embers are allowed to gather, heat builds up and is often enough to ignite the material there or even the flammable material behind. A deck allows embers to fall through the cracks and create a smoldering pile underneath that turns into a significant fire. Valleys on the roof provide gathering areas where the heat will ignite the wood sheathing underneath. The solutions here are cleaner forms and smoother finishes with tight joints.

5. Limit Fire Load

Whether a home is destroyed or just damaged by wildfire, the culprit is often a gathering of combustible materials near the house. This might be mulch (of any sort), firewood or lumber scraps, shrubs or small trees, dead leaves, fallen needles, or more dangerous things such as propane tanks or other fuels.

It is part of my responsibility as an architect to understand and acknowledge the difference between what I know and what I don't know. Designing for protection against fire is part of my education and part of my job, as I draw upon prescriptive techniques used in multifamily residential buildings of different types. I've also been specializing in this type of passive defence by studying research by the Canadian National Research Council into the use and fire-resistance of wood in the construction of larger buildings.

A key part of my SAPPHR Strategy is the Tuning Workshop. The workshop is a three-session phase that brings together the collective and diverse expertise of me, the builder, and all consultants on the project to make specific decisions on how to achieve your objectives. One of those objectives will be some level of fire protection that will depend on various characteristics of your property. The result is an UltraHome™ - the pinnacle of a modern, climate-resilient, healthy home designed to endure Mother Nature and Father Time.

Imagine a day in the future as wildfire has torn through your neighbourhood. You've spent two days camping out in the cold light of an emergency shelter in the gym of a local high school, waiting to be able to go back and check what's left of your house. The fire department is finally allowing people to visit their homes and retrieve what things of value have survived. You drive along the roads across which random, charred debris is strewn. Homes in the area are burned flat. A handful of posts or iron gates stand drunkenly here and there, but already some distance away you see a familiar silhouette. Your heart is beating hard as you approach the darkened house, but you see more clearly that the form is intact. Though everything is black, covered in soot, but the shutters have held and everything else is still in place. Nervousness gives way to anticipation as you Walk up to the front door. Elation takes over as you walk in and see everything just as it was when you left. The disarray from your evacuation is the most beautiful sight you can think of.

That scenario is achievable for you. However, it is purely fantasy for hundreds of fellow Canadians who were caught unprepared and were recently or are now without a home. If you do nothing now, one hot day in the not-too-distant future could be very different.

After a horrific night of strong winds that grew a forest fire tenfold overnight as they did for the McDougall Fire in August 2023, you've been cleared to return to your home to check on what exactly is left to go back to. Virtually no landmark forms remain, and the blackened street signs leave you hunting with your mental map of the streets. Block after block shows almost nothing standing. At some point, you reach the place where your home should be... but isn't. The messy outline of the pile of charred timbers roughly matches what you remember of your house. There's a mangled pile of metal sheets where your garage door was. Some crooked piping marks where the kitchen was. You try to gauge where your kids' rooms were, but all that remains is really just a pile of charred pieces of trusses and shingles of the roof that collapsed in on everything else.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Your best bet to avoiding that future is an ultra high-performance home, and the first step to your UltraHome is booking a Diagnostic Session - a free, 30-minute call with me during which we discuss your goals for a major renovation or new house build.


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