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Creating a Fire-Resistant Home

It seems likely that building codes across Canada, including the BC Building Code, will be amended to address the rapidly growing threat of wildfires. The question is when – building codes changes seem to take place at glacial speed.

But for people in our area who are considering a new build, or rebuilding a home damaged or destroyed by our recent wildfires, there are many tried and true practical methods of substantially fireproofing your house. And these methods (many of which can be used to retrofit an existing home) typically don’t involve substantially higher costs.

The key thing to remember is that most homes lost in wildfires aren’t engulfed by a wall of flames. Instead, it’s the rain of embers deposited on houses by winds that spark the ignition (remember, embers can fly up to 10 kilometres ahead of a fire). And so practical fireproofing efforts focus on not giving those embers a chance to ignite the structure or anything in close proximity to the structure. These methods fall into two broad categories: fireproofing the structure, and fireproofing the yard or area surrounding the structure. What follows is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should give you a general idea of what to take into consideration when planning for a build or rebuild.

Fireproofing the Structure

As noted above, practical fireproofing efforts for your home are generally intended to prevent embers getting a necessary foothold and morphing into a blaze. An ember can become a full-blown fire when it comes into contact with flammable materials such as wood shingles or siding, gutters filled with leaves, or when it’s drawn inside the home via vents or broken windows.

  • Exterior Cladding: consider using fireproof materials such as concrete siding (i.e., HardiePlank), metal siding, stucco, and cultured stone. Avoid vinyl or wood siding products. Consider using fire-resistant materials such as LP Smartside Trim for window trims and fascia. Metal should be your only choice for soffit material, under roof overhangs and decks. And deck framing should never be left exposed underneath – these are areas where flames will be trapped and extreme heat will exist during a blaze.
  • Roofing: You should only be considering roofing materials that have a Class A fire-rating. These include metal roofing, high quality fibreglass asphalt shingles, torch down roofing, and concrete tiles (note that shingles or tile roofing systems must interlock tightly and not have openings that embers can find a home in). And while West Coast style homes with flat roofs are becoming more and more popular, homes with more pitch (slope) have been shown to be more fire-resistant, as embers tend to roll off. Generally speaking, you want to eliminate any nooks and crannies on your roof that can trap an ember for long enough for it to ignite the underlying structure.
  • Decks Surfaces: Decks are potentially a weak link in the event of a fire. Slatted wood decks are to be avoided. Some types of composite decking, particularly tightly fit together, offer a modest improvement. The most fire-resistant material for decks is concrete. If you insist on one of the very popular PVC or vinyl deck membranes, remember that, installed over plywood, this material only gives you a modest improvement over wood or composite slats. But if a layer of cement board is installed over the plywood, and PVC decking is installed on top the cement board, this achieves a Class A fire rating.
  • Venting: Your home has many, many vents, including kitchen and dryer vents, soffit venting, bathroom vents, and roof venting. All of these can suck embers into your home or attic. Quality aluminum soffit venting has openings that are too small for embers to pass through. But many other vents are suspect given they have openings of 1/4 inch or larger. It’s vital to ensure that vent screens for all vents, including roof vents, have openings no larger than 1/8 inch – and preferably, they’re even smaller.
  • Windows: Embers won’t be an issue for your windows. But with a nearby blaze, windows are the weakest link of any home. Extreme heat can shatter glass. Fortunately, our area has long-mandated double glazing (two layers of glass), which can withstand a fire for longer than single glazed. But if you really want to improve your window protection, consider triple glazing, or tempered glass. Tempered glass comes standard in all patio doors, but upgrading all your windows to tempered glass can make a difference – it doesn’t shatter nearly as easily. Finally, if you really want to make sure your windows aren’t your home’s weakest link, consider metal roll up shutters.
  • Doors: For many people, nothing beats the beauty of wood. But fire loves wood. Consider metal or metal cladding for any exterior doors, and that includes any overhead or garage doors. Many modern garage doors have glass inserts. If these are desired, ensure they are of double-glazed tempered glass, and not acrylic.
  • Fire Sprinklers: If you’re building new, consider installing integrated and automatic fire sprinkler systems for your roof and deck areas.

 

 

Outside Your Home

You can greatly improve your home’s ability to withstand a wildfire by creating a fire-resistant outdoor space. The goal is to create a defensive perimeter that has few or no features that can easily ignite and, in turn, ignite your home.

  • Outdoor Structures: Use non-flammable building products for any outdoor structures such as decks, fences, gazebos, pergolas and sheds.
  • Trees & Plants: consider creating an area of zero vegetation in the first few meters of the perimeter of your home, covering it with pea gravel or other rock material. There are many, many types of plants that are fire-resistant (for example, French Lavender and California Lilac). Plants to avoid are cedars, pines, bamboo and rosemary. Space any shrubs or trees appropriately so that, if they do ignite, they won’t immediately ignite neighbouring plants. Limit the height of any trees in your yard.
  • Rainwater Collection: There’s an ever increasing variety of large scale water collection and storage systems that you can employ during our rainier seasons and periods. You can use these systems to keep your property well-watered during water conservation seasons.
  • Clear Any Fuel: It goes without saying that landscape waste is essentially tinder for a fire. Keep landscape waste as far away as possible from your structure or anything ignitable.
  • Neighbourhood Collaboration: Consider creating a neighbourhood collaboration with your neighbours to assess surrounding properties and mitigate fire threats as a whole. Your personal fireproofing efforts might be enough to save your home in a wildfire, but your odds of success are that much greater if your neighbours’ houses and yards are also fire-resistant to the greatest extant possible.

 

 

Here at Copper Island Fine Homes, we are working double-time to get even more up to speed on practical methods of maximizing fire resistance in our work as we move forward after this incredibly difficult time. Please contact us at any time to discuss your build or rebuild and its fire-resistant features and safety precautions.