The old adage “When your neighbour’s house is on fire, look to your own” really takes on a new meaning after witnessing the daily news coverage of the carnage caused by the Australian brush fires. Each graphic film clip emphasized the vulnerability of rural residences to the invading infernos. Despite heroic efforts of the professional and volunteer firefighters, the men and equipment were often no match for the intense flames fanned by gale force winds through the tinder-dry countryside.
While conflagrations like those that burned through the Australian outback are few and far between in the Canadian hinterland, it does show how susceptible rural residences are to fire. Hampered by the great distances between the fire stations and the farmsteads in agricultural areas, often the best the firefighters can do is to simply keep the fire contained to single farmyard. Clearly the best time to stop a rural fire is before it starts. Listed below are five ways to protect your home and buildings from fire.
1. STEEL ROOFS
Often farm buildings are ignited from wind-borne embers that have blown in from somewhere else. Fires are able to jump hundreds of metres when red hot cinders are carried upwards to great heights by convective air currents. These cinders are then deposited downwind from the original blaze. A new ignition point is initiated when these crimson coals land on flammable material, such as dry grass, wood or asphalt shingles.
If the super heated ash particle lands on non-combustible material such as steel, concrete or glass, the burning residue simply goes out due to lack of fuel. Although most farm sheds, shops and out buildings have galvanized steel roofs and cladding that make them impervious to this type of flaming attack, it is often the house and garage that are covered with asphalt shingles or wooden shakes that make them particularly susceptible to air borne ignition.
2. VINES ON BUILDING SIDES
Most new houses have vinyl siding because of its numerous advantages over other types of finish. Vinyl is lightweight, easy to install, and is easy to clean and care for. Unfortunately vinyl siding is also extremely flammable as homeowners in urban areas have already found out. In fact, in some communities where narrow lot configurations are the rule, fires have literally jumped from house to house due to the combustible nature of the vinyl.
Growing vines on the outside of buildings has a threefold effect. First, it provides a seamless transition from house design to landscape design. Second, it provides thermal insulation from the endless summer sun. And third, it provides a green leafy shield against airborne embers.
Vines such as Virginia creeper and hops can provide as much as 18 inches of barrier against the outside elements. The stems and leaves of vines, like most living plant tissue, are composed primarily of water and are extremely difficult to ignite except by applying a continuous hot flame for an extended period of time. If you don’t believe me take a lighter to a house plant and see if it sparks up. The vines are meant as protection to airborne embers but will do little if a raging ground fire reaches the house.
3. PLANT SHELTERBELTS AWAY
FROM THE BUILDINGS
Shelterbelts are so important to the farming or ranching operation that the benefits go beyond the scope of this article. One aspect of shelterbelts that some landowners may not realize is that the “wind shadow” behind a shelterbelt is approximately 10 times the shelterbelt height. If the trees are 20 feet tall, they provide a wind shelter up to 200 feet. That simply means that the trees do not have to be right next to the house to reap the advantages that a shelterbelt has to offer.
The rule of thumb is never plant the shelterbelt closer than a tree length and a half of the anticipated height of the tallest tree. For example, spruce trees that typically grow to 60 feet high on the prairies should not be planted closer than 90 feet or so from the nearest building. That way if the trees catch fire and topple over, they will not fall and ignite any buildings. This rule is especially important when building in areas with existing mature trees or heavy forest.
4. MAKE A FIRE BARRIER AROUND BUILDINGS AND SHELTERBELTS
For many people the idea of a fireguard is an ugly patch of bare ground surrounding the farm edifices. Fortunately, due some recent work completed by Forintek, Canada’s national wood products research institute, it is possible to have an attractive yard and fire protection, too. In their experiments, Forintek researchers found that alsike clover was the best plant for stopping fire in its tracks. A 30-foot strip of the stuff would be sufficient to curtail the advancement of most Prairie fires.
Not only was alsike clover the best fire retardant in the dozen or so species that were tested, but as a legume, it also has the potential to fertilize all the plants and trees in your shelterbelt and yard as well. In fact planting alsike clover between rows of saskatoons, apples or other fruit trees can provide the best of both worlds by protecting the orchard from fire and providing a source of nitrogen for the growing trees.
5.HAVE A FIRE PROTECTION PLAN
Most urban fire protection plans have fire stations strategically located throughout the metropolitan area so that the response time to any fire, anywhere in the city is six minutes or less. Since most rural areas are serviced by volunteer fire departments often many kilometers away, it is important to have an emergency response plan in the event of a fire.
Put fire extinguishers in all of the buildings and on all of the moving equipment. Extinguishers should be checked annually, with a spare available in the event of a discharge. Muster points — safe areas where family, employees and customers can gather in — the event of a fire, should be clearly identified.
Surprising as it may seem, one of the most important aspects of an emergency plan is clear and concise directions to the farm or ranch posted near the main phone. In the excitement of a disaster, this can save valuable time for the emergency vehicles to reach their destination.
Bruno farms and ranches by the town of Athabasca, Alta. He is also a professional speaker who delivers the seminars “Diversify or Die” and “The Rural Millionaire, 21Secrets to Marketing Agricultural Products” as well as the Keynote “The Joy of Farming.” All Bruno’s presentations are based on changes he made on his own farm that raised his agricultural income from $30,000 per year to $30,000 per month. If you have a group who might benefit from Bruno’s experience, strength and hope, check out his websites www.brunowiskel.com,www.theprosperousfarmer.com,www.mrvs.net,or by phoning toll free 1-866-618-7337.