Wildfires are an incredibly devasting force – they can ravage communities and neighborhoods forcing many to flee their homes and the lives they have built there. While wildfires are a natural phenomenon and play a crucial role in our ecosystems (for example, in order for jack and lodgepole pine seeds to germinate they need the very high temperatures of a forest fire to remove their protective resin), the extent and intensity to which they are happening now are not. They are becoming all too common as our global temperatures rises.

While this threat cannot be completely avoided, there are steps residents can take to reduce the risk of wildfires reaching their beloved homes and community spaces.

One strategy has been to encourage more fires in the way of ‘prescribed burns’, i.e. the process of planning and applying fire to a predetermined area, under specific environmental conditions, to achieve a desired outcome. This technique clears out some of the dry, old vegetation which would have created potential fuel for future fires and has been successful at reducing the intensity and spread of wildfires.

Education and prevention are the next best strategies. Partners in Protection (PiP), a multidisciplinary non-profit association, made up of members representing national, provincial and municipal associations, government departments responsible for emergency services, forest and parks management, land use planning and private business and industry, developed FireSmart Canada which encourages a shared responsibility for fire protection and to empower individuals, communities and industry to reduce the risk from wildfires in or near populated areas.

For homeowners, FireSmart principles for staying safe and preventing property damage from wildfires are relatively quick and easy to follow and changes made to just within 10 metres of homes can have the biggest impact in reducing the threat of wildfire.

Some measures to make homes and yards FireSmart include:

1. Assessing the material from which homes are made (i.e. your roof, siding, doors and windows) and consider upgrading to more fire-resistance materials. For example, a metal, asphalt, clay or composite rubber tile roof offers better protection compared to untreated wood shakes or shingles. The same applies to siding: stucco, metal siding, brick/concrete and fibre cement offers superior fire resistance compared to untreated wood or vinyl siding.

2. Maintaining and cleaning in the corners and crevices of homes and yards where needles and debris build up. (50 % of homes that burn from wildfires are started by sparks or embers) Remember to remove any windblown leaves under the deck as well as any flammable debris from balconies and patios.

3. Maintaining a 1.5 metre non-combustible zone around the home and any attachments, such as decks.

4. Choosing a landscape design that includes fire-resistant plants and shrubs. These plants and shrubs have moist, supple leaves, accumulate minimal dead vegetation, have water-like sap with little odour and have a low amount of sap or resin material. Deciduous (leafy) trees are resistant to wildfire and include species such as poplar, maple, aspen, alder, and cherry. Coniferous or evergreen trees with cones and needles are highly flammable and shouldn’t be planted within 10 metres of the home. Plants and trees to avoid include spruce, fir, pine, cedar, juniper and tall grass.

While many of us welcome the warmer seasons, it is understandable that some residents are concerned, as it coincides with the start of the wildfire season. And although some may blame the trees, they are not the culprit.

As citizens of the earth, we all need to understand the intricacies and interconnection between ourselves, the trees and our role in mitigating the effects of climate change. Trees play an important role in this mitigation.

Learn more about how you can get involved and bring back the trees with our #OperationReLeaf Fort McMurray or BC Fires programs.