On June 30 of last year, in the middle of a heat wave that marked the hottest day ever recorded in Canada, the community of Lytton, British Columbia, was destroyed by fire. More than 520 buildings burned, 32,000 people were evacuated, two people died, and hundreds of residents remain displaced.
Nearly two months later, a site examination was initiated and conducted by the British Columbia FireSmart Committee to understand what exactly led to this disaster and what we could learn from it. The answers are detailed in “An examination of the Lytton, British Columbia wildland-Urban fire destruction” (the Lytton report), which was commissioned by FireSmart BC and published by the Institute of Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) in May of this year.
Before we proceed, let’s start by defining a term used in the title of and throughout the report: “wildland-urban (WU) fire.” “Wildland” refers to burning wildland fuels initiating simultaneous ignitions across wide areas of a community. “Urban” refers to burning structures as a principal source of community fire spread. The authors of the report, Jack D. Cohen, PhD., and Alan Westhaver, M.Sc., opted for WU fire instead of the more common term, “wildland-urban interface (WUI) fire” because home destruction during wildfires is not determined by geographical proximity (interface) to undeveloped land, like forests. WU without “interface” is a more appropriate reference to how WU fire disasters occur, assessing community ignition vulnerabilities, and how to effectively create ignition resistant communities for preventing WU fire disasters.
Why is this important? Well, there is a common misconception that wildfires start in forests, spread through tree canopies (a “crown fire”), and eventually reach communities, engulfing them in a wall of flames. Although extreme wildfires are inevitable, WU fire disasters are not. And, sadly, Lytton was a victim of the latter.
According to the report, a surface fire burned along the ground in dead grass, dry shrubs, and accumulations of leaf, needle litter, and other flammable debris—and it remained a surface fire without producing the large flames of a crown fire. But, due to high wind speed, high temperature, and low relative humidity, the fire quickly developed into four separate paths that moved simultaneously toward the boundaries of Lytton and the surrounding communities, exposing it to embers and heat.
It’s at this point in the WU fire sequence when the damage can be slowed, so long as properties and structures aren’t vulnerable to ignition. Fewer ignitions early on allows crews to be more effective on the ground. In Lytton’s case, though, at least 20 structures, mostly homes, were already burning an hour after the first report of fire.
Wind-driven embers then caused rapid structure-to-structure ignitions between sheds, homes, and businesses without further influence from burning wildland fuels. What this demonstrates is that, like most WU fire disasters in North America, the situation in Lytton was worsened by an abundance of fuel sources within the community.
Think of embers like snowflakes. Typically, as they fall, they begin to pile at the edges and corners of structures. And when they do, their ability to ignite things increases. But in order to ignite a structure, embers must make contact and accumulate on a flammable surface. During WU fires, structure ignitions are usually determined by the conditions of the home ignition zone (HIZ)—a 30-metre area around a structure and its flammable attachments.
WU fire disasters are a structure ignition problem. The rapid fire spread in Lytton was a result of not only highly vulnerable ignition conditions within HIZs, but also overlapping HIZs. In fact, the authors of the report attributed 90 percent of the total destruction to overlapping HIZs, dense with structures and highly ignitable materials in their immediate surroundings.
Miraculously, some homes survived. The report examines one house, in particular, which did not burn because the requirements for sustained ignition were insufficient. The surviving house showed no sign of burning within its HIZ, and, thanks to its neighbours’ non-flammable exterior walls, which confined flames and radiation to the interior of their homes, no structure-to-structure flame ignition occurred.
What happened in Lytton could happen to many communities in B.C. Right now, across Canada, there are 62,000 communities at risk. The good news is: working together, we can practically and effectively address WU fire disasters as a structure ignition problem and create ignition resistant communities. As the report concludes, “Ignition resistant HIZs and communities of the future can sufficiently reduce structure ignitions to enable successful community fire protection and thereby prevent WU fire disasters.” Ignition-resistant communities also allow First Nations to perform local cultural burning and wildland fire managers to conduct ecologically appropriate prescribed burning without the threat of WU fire destruction.
There are those things we can’t control, like the weather and how the climate is affecting wildfire behaviour. But we can control the vulnerability of our own properties. So, individuals and communities should focus on reducing the chances of homes, businesses, and critical infrastructure going up in flames.
If your community needs inspiration on becoming more FireSmart, look no further than Lytton today. They have begun to rebuild themselves into a model FireSmart community. Speaking on the CBC radio show “As it Happens” last July, Councillor John Hogan of the Lytton First Nation said, “We want the whole country to learn from this. We have to get ourselves ready and get things in place to help communities resist fire threats and disasters.”
Guided by the report’s recommendations for recovery, rebuilding, and maintenance, Lytton is taking crucial steps to enhance fire resiliency, making it their top priority. Some of those steps include: adopting the “National Guide for Wildland-Urban Interface Fires” for the construction, reconstruction, and renovation of new and damaged homes; staffing the local fire department with a full-time FireSmart Coordinator to lead community education and engagement programs for residents and property owners; and enrolling all Lytton-area neighbourhoods in the FireSmart Canada Neighbourhood Recognition Program (FCNRP).
Although motivated by its objective to assist Lytton area citizens, the following FireSmart recommendations from the report are applicable to, and should be followed by, everyone.
Creating a FireSmart home
Start from your home and work your way out. Changes made to the area closest to your home, and your home itself, have the greatest potential to reduce the risk of fire damage.
Assess your roof for areas in which debris and embers may collect, and clean it regularly of combustible materials such as leaves and branches. Use fire-resistant or fire-retardant roofing, like metal, asphalt, clay and composite rubber tiles. Untreated wood shakes create a dangerous combination of combustible material and crevices for embers or firebrands to enter.
Install a spark arrestor on your chimney to reduce the chance of sparks escaping and starting fires. Regularly remove debris from your gutters, since embers can easily ignite dry materials. Also, consider screening gutters with metal mesh to reduce the volume of debris that can accumulate.
Assess your eaves and vents. While vents play a significant role in removing moisture from attics, they create an opening for embers. Consider screening your vents with three-millimetre non-combustible wire mesh. Open eaves also create a surface that can be affected by embers and direct heat. Properly fitted soffits, fascia, blocking, and non-combustible screens help reduce the risk of embers and heat reaching your attic.
Use fire-resistant siding, like stucco, metal siding, brick, concrete, and fibre cement. Logs and heavy timbers are still reasonably effective, but untreated wood and vinyl siding offer very little protection against fire.
Install fire-resistant windows. Tempered, thermal (double-paned) windows are recommended. Single-pane windows offer little resistance to heat from advancing fires.
Ensure exterior doors are fire-rated and have a proper seal. This is also true for garage doors.
Clean under your deck. Sheath the base of your decks, balcony and house with fire-resistant material to reduce the risk of sparks and embers igniting your home. Embers can collect under decks, so be sure to enclose the areas and, more importantly, remove fuel that may accumulate underneath them.
Separate fencing from your home by at least 1.5 metres. Wooden fences and boardwalks create a direct path from a fire to your home. Separating your house from a wooden fence with a metal gate can slow the advance of a fire. Remember to cut the grass along your fence line, since long, dry grass can ignite easily.
Maintain the exterior of your home. Regular maintenance and cleaning the corners and crevices of your home and yard (where needles and debris build up) will leave nothing for embers to ignite.
Don’t forget about outbuildings. Give all sheds and outbuildings within 10 metres of your home the same FireSmart considerations as the main structure.
Zone 1 (1.5 – 10 metres)
A FireSmart yard includes smart choices for plants, shrubs, grass and mulch. Selecting fire-resistant plants and materials will increase your home’s chance of surviving a fire.
Plant low-growing, well-spaced, fire-resistant plants and shrubs. Avoid having any woody debris present, including mulch, since it can provide places for fires to start. Make sure that you maintain a 1.5-metre, non-combustible zone around your entire home and any attachments. What is a non-combustible zone? It’s a surface of soil, rock, or stone, with no plants, debris or combustible materials.
Characteristics of fire-resistant plants include: moist, supple leaves; minimal accumulation of dead vegetation; water-like sap that produces little odour; and low amount of sap or resin material.
A mowed lawn is a fire-resistant lawn. Grass shorter than 10 centimetres is less likely to burn intensely. Ensure your lawn is well-hydrated, as dry grass has a higher flammability potential. Lastly, consider a xeriscape yard to reduce or eliminate the need for irrigation.
Do not use bark or pine needle mulches within 10 metres of your home, since they are highly combustible. Gravel mulch and decorative crushed-rock mulch can significantly reduce the risk of fire.
Wood piled against a house is a major fire hazard. Moving your firewood pile may be a key factor that allows your home to survive a fire. Ensure wherever you choose to safely store it is cleaned regularly, since easily ignitable debris often collects here.
Place burn barrels and fire pits as far as possible from structures and trees. Keep the area within three metres of the burn barrel free of combustible material. Always ensure that your burn barrel has proper ventilation and is screened with six-millimetre (or less) wire mesh. Check with your local government about specific requirements and restrictions regarding backyard fire pits. Fire permits for burn barrels and fire pits are required in many jurisdictions.
Every home should have readily accessible fire tools, like shovels, rakes, axes, garden hoses, sprinklers and ladders to assist in suppressing fires.
Power lines should be clear of branches and other vegetation. Contact your local utility company to help remove branches or vegetation around overhead electrical installations.
A FireSmart yard can include trees. We often choose to live surrounded by the natural environment and trees are a cherished part of our relationship with nature. Deciduous (leafy) trees are resistant to fire and include: poplar, birch, aspen, cottonwood, maple, alder, ash, and cherry.
Include debris clean-up in your spring and fall yard maintenance. Dry leaves, twigs and branches are flammable and should be removed from your yard and gutters. Older deciduous trees can have rot and damage that makes them susceptible to fire. An arborist or forester can help you assess the condition of mature trees.
Remove any coniferous trees within 10 metres of your home. Coniferous trees, with cones and needles, like spruce, fir, pine, and cedar are highly flammable. If any of these trees ignite within 10 metres of your home, the direct flames and intense heat can cause damage or even ignite your home.
If you want to learn more about FireSmart landscaping, download the FireSmart Landscaping Guide for tips on how to make a more fire resistant yard.
Zone 2 (10 – 30 metres)
Space trees at least three metres apart to reduce the risk of fire moving into and spreading between treetops.
Remove smaller coniferous trees that could act as a “ladder” and allow fire to move into the treetops.
Remove branches within two metres of the ground to help stop surface fires from moving into treetops.
Prune coniferous trees in the late winter when they are dormant. But you can prune dead branches at any time of year.
Many of the recommendations above assume that you have direct control over the property within 30 metres of your home. If that’s not the case (your HIZ overlaps with a neighbour’s) the FireSmart recommendations still apply. Chat with your neighbours about FireSmart. Shared information, along with mutual co-operation and planning, can help.
If you are concerned about your neighbourhood’s fire risk, ask local authorities, the planning department or local fire department how they are integrating FireSmart principles into their plans. You can also reach out to your Local FireSmart Representative to assess your home and enroll your neighbourhood in the FireSmart Canada Neighbourhood Recognition Program (FCNRP).
The Lytton report shows us that while last year’s fire was extreme, it was not exceptional. It underscores the urgent need to increase the fire resiliency of homes and properties in B.C. Disasters such as Lytton can be prevented by taking actions like building with FireSmart materials, keeping a well-maintained property, and working with others to reduce the fuel sources in your neighbourhood.
Visit FireSmartBC/Research to read the Lytton report and the recommendations that Lytton plans to implement as it establishes itself as the gold standard in fire resiliency.